Commentary: Loopholes You Could Drive A Golf Cart Through

After 50 years of fulminating, Congress is trying to clean up the capital's oldest profession: lobbying. Anxious to defuse the rising citizen clamor for change, the House and Senate have curbed freebies for members. And on Nov. 29, Congress approved a bill requiring lobbyists to register and reveal details of their operations, from clients' names to lobbying fees (table). "You're going to see greater public confidence in the Congress," predicts Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a champion of the reforms.

But the public shouldn't take solace yet. While lawmakers passionately debated the propriety of accepting T-shirts, meals, and golf junkets, they failed to address more invidious forms of influence peddling. Beyond restricting gifts, Congress will force many more lobbyists to register than in the past. But the bill only covers activities where lobbyists have direct contacts with government officials. They could still pursue other well-heeled operations without disclosure. How? By taking money now spent on direct lobbying and diverting it into grassroots crusades and mass-media campaigns.

PRIZED PLOY. The loopholes are no accident. Last year, Republicans killed a much tougher measure that would have required disclosure of the vast sums spent on grassroots efforts. Many of these campaigns are not run by local activists in the hinterlands, but are ginned up by Washington consultants who use phone banks or direct mail to persuade the public to deluge lawmakers with letters and calls.

The GOP and conservative groups, which have an edge over Democrats in this area, had no intention of destroying their prized ploy. So the new bill has a narrower focus--imposing disclosure requirements only on contacts with lawmakers, aides, and the executive branch. That will encourage further grassroots efforts, which are expected to expand to the Internet. "Instead of just encouraging them to write letters, you can reach out and give people the words to say," says lobbyist Howard D. Marlowe, who has his own World Wide Web page.

The same loophole would give a boost to the multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns that business coalitions have launched on such issues as health-care reform and telecommunications legislation. The money spent on direct contacts with lawmakers pales beside the sums spent on television, radio, and newspaper ads.

Another potential reverberation of reform: Lobbyists may just take the cash they're saving on expensive junkets and increase their campaign contributions to candidates. Indeed, Thomas M. Susman, chairman of the American League of Lobbyists' panel on standards and ethics, predicts "a shifting in that direction." Lobbyists already are plotting some devious ways of getting around the new rules. One rep's suggestion: holding a one-person fund-raiser for a lawmaker at an expensive restaurant. "He picks up lunch, and I give him a check for $200," the lobbyist says.

"LUDICROUS." That's too bad, because the goal of the gift and disclosure measures was to reduce sleaze in Washington. Reformers hoped that the close ties fostered by wining and dining would end, and that embarrassing publicity over lavish expenses might discourage such activity. But without new campaign-finance rules, the public's appetite for reform is unlikely to be sated. "It's ludicrous to think a $20 dinner will buy off a member but a $5,000 check won't," notes Ronald G. Shaiko, an American University government professor.

So don't be surprised if the public forces Congress to take another whack at change. Next time, reformers should push for disclosure of the money spent on faux grassroots campaigns and advertising blitzes. And Congress should curb its hunger for corporate campaign contributions long enough to pass some real reforms. After all, nothing gets voters more incensed than the appearance of a quid pro quo. If lawmakers don't heed this call, all the campaign donations in the world won't protect them from the voters' wrath.


Congress' new rules for lobbyists:

GIFTS The House adopted a flat ban on gifts, while the Senate imposed a $50 limit on a single gift and a $100 annual limit from a single source.

REGISTRATION Anyone who spends more than 20% of a client's time on lobbying must register. So must lawyers representing foreign entities.

DISCLOSURE Lobbyists must reveal clients, issues they lobby on, and amounts they are paid and spend.

TRADE REPRESENTATIVE Anyone who has represented a foreign entity is barred from serving as U.S. Trade Representative or Deputy Trade Representative.

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