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February 28, 2006

Dems cool on Obama bill

Senate Democrats have declined to support legislation proposed by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to reform lobbying, even though he is their point man on the issue.

Good-government groups have made enforcement of the ethics and lobbying rules their top priority, and they consider Obama’s proposal the strongest means of enforcement. But lawmakers appear to view the medicine as too strong.

On Feb. 8, nearly three weeks ago, Obama introduced legislation that would create an independent commission to enforce lobbying rules. Despite reaching out aggressively to Democratic colleagues and a few Republicans, according to good-government groups working with him, only one senator, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has co-sponsored his proposal.

Democratic leaders tapped Obama to take a leading role on ethics reform when they unveiled their Honest Leadership and Open Government Act last month.

They launched the initiative that would have created a Senate office of public integrity, which would have focused solely on lobbyists. It did not touch lawmakers.

When that initiative was launched, at a rally in the Library of Congress, Obama took center stage with Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Rules Committee ranking Democrat Louise Slaughter (N.Y.). Forty Democratic senators co-sponsored the bill.

Obama’s bill would go further by expanding the scope of enforcement to include lawmakers. It appears to have been ignored.

Obama is not a member of the Rules or Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, both of which have jurisdiction over the issue, but he is considered a fast-rising star of the party, recently appearing on the cover of the liberal American Prospect magazine. His leading role on ethics served as the opening to a lengthy, positive profile in the Chicago Sun-Times.

But as enthusiastic as Obama’s Democratic colleagues are about him as a party leader, they are decidedly unexcited about his proposal.

“I think, understandably, my colleagues are concerned about the possibility of an independent commission being used to politicize ethics issues,” Obama said in an interview.

Specifically, Obama has proposed setting up a congressional ethics-enforcement commission staffed with former judges and former members of Congress to investigate possible violations of lobbying and ethics rules. The findings of the commission would be presented to the Senate Ethics Committee, which would retain the power to impose penalties.

To build support, Obama said, he has circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter and has contacted “key individuals” on the rules panel. But a good-government advocate who worked with Obama called the effort unsuccessful.

“I’m trying to make sure that they are comfortable with a structure based on what states have done with the [similar] commissions,” Obama said.

He said he has been working on building support for the bill with members of the Senate Democratic caucus and several Republicans and that government watchdog groups consider his bill “their single biggest priority.”
It is too early to cast a final judgment on his effort or to say that his colleagues are not serious about reform, the senator said.

Mike Surrusco, ethics team leader for Common Cause, said that his group is focused on the Obama bill but that attracting support is difficult. Public Citizen and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, two other government-reform groups, are also making Obama’s bill their top priority.

“Real reform is hard to do because people are happy with the status quo,” Surrusco said. “If they can get by with something that is wishy-washy, they will.”

Meredith McGehee, a lobbyist with the Campaign Legal Center, another group pushing reform, said lawmakers are “scared to death” of any proposal that would empower an independent entity to investigate violations of ethics rules.

The Campaign Legal Center generally supports Obama’s proposal but is concentrating its effort on the other lobbying reform proposal that good-government groups believe has real teeth. That proposal is sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.).

Unlike the Senate enforcement bill, the House bill establishes a single administrator who would probe violations after receiving approval from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to do so.

Democracy 21, another group, is focusing on the House bill but also supports Obama’s effort.

Gary Kalman, a lobbyist with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, predicted that Obama’s bill would do well on the floor, even if it has not attracted much support so far.

“If we can get a vote on the Obama bill, it would be very hard for senators to vote against it,” Kalman said. “It’s not a new and shocking idea that we should enforce the rules.”

The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to mark up lobbying reform legislation today, but reform advocates say it is unlikely that they will adopt a strong enforcement mechanism.

They say there is a greater likelihood that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will include a mechanism for enforcing the rules in its reform package, scheduled for a markup Thursday. But the substance of that package is not yet known.

Obama said that while there is no consensus over how to enforce the rules there is consensus on about “90 percent” of suggested reforms, including earmark reform and creating greater transparency for lobbying activities.


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