Why Lobbying Reform Could Get Lobbied To Death

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) doesn't usually need a crowbar to pry a bill he favors out of committee. But that may be the only way he can deliver on his goal of March action on a lobbying-reform bill stuck in the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill was once regarded as a top priority of this Congress. But Foley, who for years has hectored Congress about the need for lobbying reform, may have to take the unusual step of circumventing the judiciary panel and asking the Rules Committee to send the measure directly to the floor. Such difficulties indicate how strong a grip business-as-usual has on the capital--and how hard it will be to clean up the even more intractable campaign-finance mess.

OLD BULLS. The status-quo crowd is getting help from an unusual quarter: Nonprofit organizations resent the proposed requirement to disclose all contacts with the executive branch. Reform purists oppose the measure because they think it doesn't go far enough. Meanwhile the Clinton Administration, though backing the measure, has stayed on the sidelines. It fears offending the Old Bulls of the House who control the fate of health reform and other priorities.

The bill, sponsored by Representatives John Bryant (D-Tex.) and George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), is close to one that passed the Senate last year. It requires all congressional and executive branch lobbyists to reveal who pays them and how much. Currently, about 75% of lobbyists don't have to register. The measure closes loopholes that allow some foreign agents and attorneys to avoid disclosure. And it limits the gifts, including meals, golf outings, and vacations, that special interests shower on lawmakers.

Sounds like something only a fat cat would oppose. But charities, museums, and public-interest groups--from the Arts Institute of Chicago to Zero Population Growth--object to a requirement that they disclose lobbying of federal regulators. Raul Yzaguirre, chairman of Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofits, complains that the cost of new record-keeping would cripple his members. "The remedy is worse than the disease," he protests.

"Good government" groups also complain that compromises in the bill open the door to new abuses. One example: The bill would bar lobbyists from buying meals for lawmakers, but it would allow lobbyists to attend meetings with them if a third party picks up the tab. "They take things away, and then they put them back," grouses Common Cause Vice-President Michael Mawby.

The declining popularity of Ross Perot and the cooling of reformist passions have also hurt the bill's momentum. "There's no public outcry anymore," says one GOP leadership aide. "The average working American doesn't get that riled up over whether a legislator went out to lunch with a lobbyist." But Perot-nistas could still get the legislation moving. Bryant's proposal is "a great step forward," says Russ Verney of United We Stand America. "The 1992 elections were supposed to be the dawn of change, but it's 1994, and they're still feeding at the same trough."

It will take a lot more of that spirit to push through the lobbying bill and move on to campaign-finance reform. "Let's be blunt. A lot of members want to play golf and go to those fancy restaurants," says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, an ethics watchdog. "They feign deep sincerity on the issue, but they don't want to give up what they have." The biggest disappointment, Lewis says, is a White House that is afraid to ruffle feathers. "It is clearly marginal to Clinton," complains Lewis. The President may have to move reform back toward the top of his agenda to get a tough bill--and at this point, that's unlikely.

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