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House stalled on 'K Street' reforms

Congressional Democrats are fond of proclaiming they passed the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reforms in a political generation after taking control in January.

But they must not be reading Citizen K Street - or failed to grasp the significance of the retirement of their leading reformer, Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.).

The truth is, the sense of urgency to do something in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal has faded, and meaningful reforms may not be approved until this summer, at the earliest. The House and Senate this year have taken different approaches, and those differences must be reconciled before Democrats can make any legitimate boasts.

The House altered internal rules to make it an ethics violation for members and staff to accept gifts, meals, tickets to sports and entertainment events and other things of value from registered lobbyists. But it has yet to pass a bill that would revamp federal laws pertaining to lobbyists -- including extending from one year to two the cooling-off period before senior staffers who leave the Hill can begin lobbying their former congressional bosses.

The Senate approved its ethics and lobbying reforms Feb. 1, including gift-ban provisions similar to those approved by the House but also more far reaching changes to federal lobbying laws. But those broader changes can't take effect until the House passes a similar measure and the two bills are reconciled. While many Senate offices are already abiding by the internal gift-ban change, they are still basically free to take such handouts, as long as they are under $50 in value.

But when the House will act is far from certain. Precious time on the House floor is being consumed by must-do measures such as the annual budget and continued legislation related to the Iraq war. If the House finally passes its lobbying bill, it would be sent to a House-Senate conference for the differences to be ironed out between the two versions before final passage.

Lawmakers and aides are unclear when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will be able to craft a full package of reforms that her caucus can support. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) is overseeing a task force examining whether a quasi-independent investigative body should be established to initiate probes of suspected lawmakers and monitor the reports that lobbying firms must submit to Congress. This body would function as an investigative unit, forwarding serious matters to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct for an in-depth investigation and action.

But Capuano told Capitol Briefing this week that he no longer thought he would meet his May 1 deadline, saying he's "not going to let an arbitrary deadline" get in the way of crafting the best proposal. "I'm not worried about it," he said of the deadline.

As Tory Newmyer of Roll Call reported this week (subscription required), House negotiators are hung up on three provisions advanced last year by Meehan: the extended cooling-off period; disclosure of campaign checks bundled for candidates; and disclosure of consultants hired to conduct grass-roots campaigns, a never-before-seen sunshine act.

It's now highly likely that Meehan will resign from the House before any final lobbying reforms are approved by the full Congress. Meehan this week accepted an offer to become president of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and he likely will leave by July 1. And by that time, Cassidy and Associates - the firm headed by Gerald Cassidy, the man behind Robert Kaiser's spellbinding Citizen K Street series about lobbying - will have earned another $13 million or so in the first half of 2007.

Some of Meehan's allies in the House worry his departure will dampen the spirit.

"He'll be a tremendous loss. When you lose someone who's been such a strong reformer, you loose momentum," said Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), who partnered with Meehan to pass campaign finance reforms in 2002 that outlawed unlimited contributions to party campaign committees.

Capuano disagreed, saying that there was still a commitment to follow through on the broader lobbying reform package, with or without Meehan's input. "It won't make an ounce of difference," he said.

But, as Citizen K Street has demonstrated, lobbyists such as Cassidy have found ways to adapt to changing climates and cultures. Cassidy is widely viewed as the creator of modern lobbying. His firm was the first to target universities, hospitals, towns and municipal authorities for lobbying contracts, promising them direct line items in the 13 annual appropriations bills, which have come to be derisively known as "earmarks." Cassidy also became an early master of helping his corporate clients open political action committees, and then using his offices to host fundraisers for lawmakers at which he bundled campaign checks from his clients, their PACs and his lobbyists.

Cassidy's firm has slipped from its once rock-solid place as the top lobbying firm in revenue, but it still brought in more than $25 million last year, according to disclosure reports analyzed by CQ PoliticalMoneyLine. And he's now worth an estimated $125 million.

He launched his firm more than 30 years ago, with a now estranged business partner, immediately in the wake of the last big ethics reforms. Cynics might argue that, no matter what laws Congress passes now, Gerry Cassidy, or the next version of him, will figure out ways to continue getting clients to pays tens of millions of dollars a year to gain influence.

By Paul Kane  |  March 16, 2007; 12:10 PM ET
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Its good to know that Capital Briefing is keeping tabs on the reform initiatives. I can't help but think that if more media were covering this issue like Capital Briefing and Citizen K Street, then the sense of urgency would not have dissipated so rapidly. I also think that the conviction of Abramoff and the Democratic takeover of Congress have contributed to a sense of complacency among the public about the need for reform. People need to remember that if the rules aren't improved then there's just going to be more of the same old 'quid pro quo'. Regardless of our own party affiliation, we ought to all be in agreement on the need for these reforms - if one party can commit abuses, so can the other party. The truth is, despite people's loyal belief that their own party would never act inappropriately or unethically, no party is immune from the corrupting influence of power. I can only hope that Rep. Shays is mistaken about Rep. Meehan's retirement having a negative impact on the progress of reforms, but I suspect, especially if Meehan is the chief advocate for the contentious reforms, that momentum will indeed be lost. What would be worse then reforms taking longer to be implemented though, would be if they were not implemented at all. That can not be allowed to happen.

Posted by: Patrick Huss | March 16, 2007 6:53 PM | Report abuse

I've been reading the Citizen K Street series with some curiosity, having worked for one lobbying firm before (not C&A). It's been an interesting series despite some judgment lapses by Bob Kaiser and what sometimes strikes as too negative a tone.

However, what comes through is a story about an entrepreneur with a compelling background and some interesting experiences who built a new kind of business and created some great research centers along the way. Here's hoping he gets a lot more done before he calls it a career.

Posted by: Martin | March 17, 2007 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Nice plug for the Cassidy series. I didn't realize until I read the Kaiser articles that Cassidy helped get so much funding for good causes, like education and colleges. Glad to see Congress does, or at least did, something right once in a while.

Posted by: John2.Bravo | March 19, 2007 12:21 PM | Report abuse

i agree

Posted by: george bush | March 20, 2007 10:25 AM | Report abuse

How does it feel to be the modern parasite. No one will remember what you do. When you die you'll be poor, alone, cold, and forever, dead.

Posted by: sinderdj | March 20, 2007 10:24 PM | Report abuse

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