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On Capitol Hill, we’ll know it’s lobbying reform when ...

WASHINGTON – Was it the iconoclast Gore Vidal who once wrote that to accept the celebrated definition of patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel – is to overlook the full potential of reform? A Congress that began the year with loud vows to reform lobbying practices has instead made a steady advance on realizing that potential.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., decided not to vote for the leading watered-down reform package in the Senate, a small irony coming from the most high-profile reformer there.

The House of Representatives has entered a realm beyond irony with its own lobbying reform efforts. After voting down a measure against earmarks offered by one of its own members – Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. – the House has passed a bill that would cede its legislative powers by offering the presidency a long-sought line-item veto power over the federal budget. The line-item veto, as it is known, would be wielded against the same family of pork-barrel spending projects Flake tried to legislate against, leading multiple commentators to observe that “the peoples’ House” wasn’t so much governing its own house as asking the executive branch to save it from itself – “save us before we earmark again,” to paraphrase a comment that summed up the cynicism.

But if several suspect patterns of conduct now apparent in Congress express a spirit of corruption still more sinister than those at the heart of separate bribery investigations, it may be that only the Justice Department can hope to rescue the leading institutions of democracy.

The people will deliver their verdicts in November. Meanwhile, it would be a good time to sort out what genuine lobbying reform would look like. A strategic silence in the strongholds of Congress has become deafening as members hope a host of Washington corruption scandals won’t become home-thrusting with their own constituents. Still, a handful of lobbying reform proposals have been offered, with more likely to be heard from as election season gets into high gear. But barring the unforeseen, the current 109th Congress is unlikely to enact major lobbying reform.

After the traditional long August recess, lawmakers are expected to return to Washington and work primarily on appropriations issues through September. Then, with every seat in the House of Representatives being contested along with 36 in the Senate, their time will be committed through the November midterm elections. Afterward, the legislative year is apt to end in a “lame duck” congressional session, with a peppering of voted-out officeholders serving out their terms. Because the usual political motivations may not apply to lame duck officeholders, lame duck sessions are noted more for unpredictability than for productive legislation.

From a number of conversations around Capitol Hill, Indian Country Today has derived a consensus on necessary lobbying reforms. They are three in number: eliminate conflicts of interest in “earmarks,” ban privately funded travel and mandate time-locked contributions. None of them have much chance of being enacted at present, but circumstances are prone to change in any election year; and one of the wild cards still out there in this election year is the prospect of indictments in the Abramoff lobbying scandal. In any case, political candidates who talk lobbying reform at election time can be taken seriously if these three issues are on their radar screen:

* Eliminate conflicts of interest in earmarks.

Earmarks are appropriations that lawmakers write into spending bills in support of projects in their own congressional state or district. There’s a legitimate place in politics for earmark funding, despite the excesses of so-called “pork-barrel politics” – lawmakers invariably defend earmarks as a response to constituents, and that has proved a pretty good leg to stand on.

The problem is that earmarks have hypertrophied from 350 in 1974 to tens of thousands today, according to James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. Americans, especially their interest groups, have adopted earmarks as a good way to get money out of Congress, and they’ve hired lobbyists to help them – approximately 100,000 Washington lobbyists, by Thurber’s estimate, counting the great majority who are not officially registered as lobbyists but who do the work of lobbying. Along with a higher demand for earmarks have come higher fees for lobbyists, to the point where many lobbying shops have been purchased by legal firms. The legal firms in turn have introduced a fee structure based on “billable hours.”

All of which provided a perfect recipe for the bribery schemes of lobbyist-gone-bad Jack Abramoff.

But downstream of the Abramoff bribery scandal, a pattern of apparent self-dealing has found the surface. One congressional member after another turns out to have secured earmarks for projects in their home districts, in the process also managing to improve their own assets or put money in their own pockets. All deny wrongdoing, arguing that the projects respond to constituent needs and deliver community benefits. But if larger investigations were to contradict them, it would mean congressional members have knowingly engaged in patterns of conduct designed to gut the intent of law for their own benefit without quite breaking the letter of the law. If proved, such conduct would surely gouge the good-faith foundations of democracy more cruelly than the raw crimes of Abramoff and company.

The latest congressional member implicated in a seeming pattern of self-dealing is the most powerful member of Congress, by some estimations – Speaker of the House Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. In 2005, Hastert reaped a $2.018 million profit from the sale of lands that appreciated in value after he helped to finance a nearby highway project with a $207 million home-district earmark. The Sunlight Foundation revealed Hastert’s dealings and leveled the allegation of self-enrichment, which was subsequently reported by the Washington Post.

The highway project is known as Prairie Parkway. Conceived as a means of relieving truck congestion in Chicago, the parkway will connect major thoroughfares west of the Windy City. Instead of converging on Chicago over Interstates 80, 94 and 90, traffic will flow around it through the western suburbs once the parkway is installed. As a rank-and-file House member, Hastert has promoted the Prairie Parkway since the 1990s. But it was only after he became one of the most powerful officeholders in Washington that he purchased property near the proposed parkway, land ideally situated for a commercial and residential development seeking to capitalize on parkway traffic. Hastert has capitalized on the hike in his property value associated with the $207 million parkway appropriation, secured by the Speaker himself in a $286 billion transportation bill. The names of his associates in Prairie Parkway projects are familiar to many politically attentive Chicagoans.

When an out-of-state tribe announced plans to acquire trust lands for a casino on Hastert’s doorstep, and so well within reach of Prairie Parkway’s proposed traffic pattern, it took no time at all for Hastert to let out a bellyache that was heard on Capitol Hill. He threatened a moratorium on all new casino projects, a perhaps understandable excess given his constituency, Christian-inclined and anti-gaming on moral grounds. He now professes no moral or ethical hurdles at all to realizing a fortune in profit from the sale of his own recently acquired land in the same traffic pattern.

Double standard?

As of now, no telling; and Hastert is not publicly known to be under federal investigation.

Worth noting: Only about a month after the December 2005 land sale that increased his net worth by more than $2 million, Hastert led the outcry in Congress for lobbying reform.

Protesting too much? Again, no telling as of now.

Strict rules against conflicts of interest in earmarked projects would have spared us any suspense.

* Ban privately funded travel for congressional members and staff.

This ought to be an easy one, notwithstanding that many members have rallied in defense of “educational” flights financed by private companies with interests before Congress. Another defense of the practice is that it’s a reward for staff members, thought to be underpaid by comparison with private-sector salaries. But the right line of reasoning couldn’t be simpler or more obvious. Employees on Capitol Hill are in public service. If flight costs cannot be justified as public service, they should not be incurred. If they can be justified as public service, the public should pay for them and congressional members should defend the expense.

* Mandate time-locked contributions.

The FBI is currently investigating the timing of contributions to congressional members, according to congressional sources. Presumably, the proximity of contributions received to legislative acts has some bearing on the bribery investigations initiated by the Abramoff scandal. The technical capacity for time-locking receipt of contributions is readily available. Installing it as an ethical standard would deter a multitude of sins.