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A few short months ago, after �berlobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted on federal charges, it seemed lawmakers were stepping over one another to condemn the K Street tribe. Lobbyists were the scourge of Washington, and major reforms were deemed essential. How things have changed. As the House prepares to consider a stripped-down lobby reform bill this week (and that only after a contentious vote on April 27 saved the bill from being torpedoed), little talk is heard these days of the need to let the sun shine down on K Street. Instead the congressional debate has become bogged down in an internal power struggle over the use of earmarks in appropriations. And when it comes to lobby reform, this seems to be the only issue the majority party cares about. “Earmarks are the currency of corruption,” says Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Battle lines have been drawn by Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). In a crafty bid to take earmarks — the toy box of the Appropriations Committee — off the table, Lewis has proposed that earmark disclosure not be limited to just the Appropriations Committee but include every committee that directs federal dollars. What’s good for Appropriations, goes Lewis’ theory, is good for everyone else, as well. It appears that Lewis’ recalcitrance over earmark reforms has paid dividends. In last week’s showdown with appropriators, the House leadership agreed to apply reforms in earmarking to a broad swath of legislation, not just to appropriations. Though the methodology of appropriations has long been a target for lawmakers critical of reckless Washington spending, the final goad to challenge the process came after the federal indictment and conviction on bribery charges of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the former California Republican House member whose penchant for lavish goodies (Louis-Philippe commodes, anyone?) became emblematic of the District’s corruption. “Unless you can go after the way in which money is contributed and handled, then you really won’t change the culture,” says Bob Walker, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. Lewis, however, remained intractable on the issue of appropriations. Many lobbyists say this is a matter of principle for the Redlands lawmaker. But one Republican lobbyist suggests that Lewis has another motivation — namely, to become the next House speaker. Though current Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has publicly said he will stay until the end of President George W. Bush’s term (per the president’s request), many Capitol touts are betting that Hastert will step down sometime next year after the midterm elections.
• Lobbying Revenue Streams Growing Wider (March 20, 2006)• Lobby Reform Could Spark Brain Drain (March 6, 2006)• K Street Takes Pass on Reform (February 27, 2006)• Grass-Roots Groups Anxious (February 13, 2006)• The Latest Line on Lobbying Reform (February 13, 2006)• K Street Quiet on Reforms — For Now (January 23, 2006)• K Street Mulls Jack Factor (January 9, 2006)

“I think that’s why he’s [Lewis] making such a big deal of this and digging in his heels,” says the lobbyist, who asked not to be named. “The old guard has had enough of the leadership. . . . They aren’t going to be told what to do. They see him [Lewis] as a leader to win on this issue.” Calls to Lewis’ office went unreturned. Reforming the committee process is an Augean task, as the turf-conscious appropriators defend their sources of hometown pork. Yet it’s a necessity, according to many congressional observers, especially on the heels of the Cunningham bribery scandal and the resignation of ethics committee member Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who is under investigation for allegedly directing earmarks to nonprofits in West Virginia that financially benefited him. As the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act heads to a vote this week, long gone are provisions that would have required lawmakers to disclose “any lobbying contact,” and explicit bans against privately financed travel. The bill now would simply require lobbyists to file quarterly reports and disclose campaign contributions. Government watchdog groups have decried the watered-down bill. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, labels it a “joke” and “an illusion that does not change the way lobbyists and members function.” Though for many lobbyists, including Elaine Acevedo, the former president of the American League of Lobbyists, not much can be done in terms of reform because lobbyists are already required to disclose whom they lobby, based on the 1996 Lobbying Disclosure Act. “Every time there’s a murder, you don’t enact a new murder statute; you let the case law define it,” says Acevedo. It’s also uncertain what will happen to the appropriations process. Grover Norquist, the Republican lobbyist with Americans for Tax Reform, has suggested to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — who in his post-congressional career has focused on maintaining a GOP majority — rules changes that would require members to put their name next to an earmark. If such an earmark were requested, neither that lawmaker nor his immediate family could go work for the institution benefiting from that earmark. Norquist says that Gingrich thought the notion was “too radical.” “No one likes my [reform] ideas,” says Norquist. Instead of such rules, members can always decide if they don’t want earmarking, says Jack Schenendorf, a lawyer at Covington & Burling and a former staffer for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “There was a time when there was a lot less earmarking going on,” he says. And it remains to be seen how Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the symbolic leader of lobby reform, will respond to the House lobbying bill. This is his centerpiece issue, says another Republican lobbyist, and if it doesn’t include earmarks, Republicans will be in a mess. McCain’s office did not return a call seeking comment. For now it seems that K Street can breathe easy, as it appears lobbyists’ predictions earlier this year will come to fruition: Lobby reform will have zero impact on their business. Yet it may well be a temporary, even false, sense of reprieve. The debate over earmarks is not going away, and more indictments related to the Abramoff scandal are expected this summer. And though many lawmakers running for re-election currently take solace that lobby reform is not on the minds of their constituents, it soon could be, says Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). “There’s not a lot of chatter in the districts, but there will be a lot of chatter if we don’t do something,” Shays told Legal Times. “I don’t think they [lawmakers opposed to reform] get it.”

Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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