Dems push corruption issue for lobby reform
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) is breaking out last year's political playbook for a "culture-of-corruption" replay that he hopes will help bring legislative success in rallying support for lobbying reform this spring on top of last fall's electoral success.
"The issue of the culture of corruption still casts a big shadow," Emanuel, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told Capitol Briefing this week.
Emanuel, who is delivering a major corruption address tomorrow at the Brookings Institution, seized on the recent FBI raids of the businesses of the wives of Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), both of whom are under investigation for linking legislative favors to personal profits through side businesses, as a continuing reason to push for more reforms.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already taken the raid on Doolittle's home, where his wife Julie runs a consulting firm that worked for imprisoned ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and turned it into a free web video attacking the lawmaker's ethics, to the tune of "Bad Boys", the theme song for the long-running Fox show "Cops".
The trick for Emanuel, however, is turning the ethics investigations into something more than a political attack. "We made a pledge to reform the system, and we've got to reform it," he said, ticking off a series of internal rules changes that banned the previously common practice of freebie meals and tickets to big-time sports events and concerts.
But, four months into their reign, Democrats have yet to change any laws governing how lobbyists ply their trade or place any new limits on the revolving door for members and staff and post-legislative employment on K Street.
The new Republican leadership, well aware that they lost at least a half-dozen previously safe House seats because of ethics allegations, set a new tone by immediately nudging Doolittle and Renzi off their prized committee assignments until the probes are completed. "We will move quickly and assure that there will be consequences for behavior that brings disgrace on the House," Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), the number three House GOP leader, said. "The entire [GOP] conference is committed to sending a message to the American people that dishonor and discredit will not be tolerated."
Back in November 2004, ex-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) first faced allegations of improper gifts from Abramoff but didn't lose his committee chairmanship for another 15 months. He's now serving time in federal prison. "I've made it clear all year that we're not going to tolerate inappropriate behavior," said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader.
But Boehner said Democrats have their own ethical issues. He didn't say so directly, but it's clear he had in mind Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who is still under investigation after the FBI found $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer in a raid of his home. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), after pushing him off the coveted Ways and Means Committee last year, gave Jefferson a post on the Homeland Security Committee this year.
"People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," Boehner said.
Emanuel said that the committee-assignment issue is a fig leaf for the larger problem. "People want a solution to this, not just: we kicked them off the top committees," he said.
But Emanuel admitted some Democrats had begun to think that no new lobbying restrictions were needed. The Senate has passed a bill and is awaiting House action so that a compromise bill can be hammered out and signed into law, a process that now seems likely to last well into the summer if not later.
Emanuel said the House would have a bill on the floor "in short order," possibly next week. There are still several issues that members are resisting: forcing firms to reveal how much in campaign donations they bundle from their lobbyists and clients to lawmakers; disclosure by public relations firms of grassroots efforts at lobbying that doesn't involve direct contact with Congress and therefore isn't currently disclosed; and an extension of the cooling-off period forbidding members and senior staff from lobbying on Capitol Hill.
Emanuel, the man who chaired the DCCC last election cycle and helped craft the corruption message that helped catapult his party in power, said he's optimistic. He believes that those who hoped the issue of lobbying reform would die away got a healthy reminder after the Doolittle and Renzi raids.
"Last week was a reminder: not so fast," he said.
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