Democrats put to test on reform

By OTHER VIEWS Washington Post
Published May 23, 2007

This week will tell whether House Democrats recognize the voter disgust with Washington that helped them win the majority - and whether they are willing to change their behavior in response. As part of their pledge to end the GOP "culture of corruption, " Democrats promised to loosen the cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. A good, if imperfect, package of reforms to do that is set to come to the House floor this week. But passage is far from assured.

Democratic leaders are behind the bill. But many rank-and-file members refuse to accept that voters want, and that they need to deliver, a significant change from Washington business as usual. These legislators need to know that they will be held accountable for their votes - not just on the reform package itself but on the procedural rule to allow it to be brought up for debate. A vote against the rule is a vote against lobbying reform.

The most controversial part of the package requires lobbyists to reveal the amounts they help raise for lawmakers, not just disclose campaign checks they write directly. The provision wouldn't bar "bundling"; it would simply shine some light for the public on what lawmakers and lobbyists already know, namely, how much the former are indebted to the latter. Fierce resistance to this plan is the best proof of how badly it is needed.

The price of getting the bundling provision even this far was abandoning efforts to lengthen from one to two years the cooling-off period during which former lawmakers and staff members must refrain from lobbying former colleagues. That's unfortunate but worth the price. There are other regrettable omissions, too, including a requirement to disclose supposed grass-roots efforts by paid lobbying groups.

But the measure would provide more frequent (quarterly), accessible (via the Internet) and detailed disclosure, including of lobbyists' contributions to lawmakers' charities. Throw in the requirement to spotlight lobbyists who bundle, and this would be a major improvement on the cozy status quo.