Viewpoint -- Washington's Rush To Reform

Jan. 13, 2006
It's real. But will lobbying reform last? What executives can do.

April, wrote poet T.S. Eliot, is the cruelest month. But not this year -- at least not for lobbyists and an as yet uncounted number of members of Congress. They're likely to judge January as the cruelest.

This month is likely to be seen as the cruelest because just about anywhere on Capitol Hill and along the K Street corridor in the District of Columbia's northwest quadrant, the "R" word is being spoken. The "R" word is reform. And it's being spoken as legislators and lobbyists alike assess the immediate result of misdeeds -- alleged and actual -- associated with what is generally referred to around town as the Abramoff scandal.

The full extent of who did what for whom and when has yet to be documented.

But on the Hill and even at the White House there's a rush to distance oneself from the now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. There's been a rush to rid coffers of money that Abramoff directly or indirectly contributed to election campaigns. Potentially more significant, in both the House and Senate there have been moves to actually reform the rules that apply to lobbying. Greater and more frequent disclosure of lobbying activities is one of the reforms with widespread support. Banning privately paid trips for members of Congress is another -- as is banning lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers in Washington, D.C. People are really talking about such reforms. And the assumption is that legislators, not unaware that come November citizens will be electing the full House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, are serious about writing new rules. Look for some reform before November.

However, will new rules -- probably less sweeping than some philosophic liberals would like and more restrictive than some philosophic conservatives are comfortable with -- make a difference? Yes, they will -- in the short run. Very few people really like being associated with practices that seem sleazy until proven to be otherwise. Both lobbyists and the lobbied will go along with reform at least until after this fall's Congressional elections. But then, I am convinced, the search for loopholes in the new rules will begin in earnest, and it will probably be led by some Congressmen-turned-lobbyists. Their search-and-rescue operation will continue until there's another scandal or there is a national commitment to truly serious reform. Although I would prefer the latter, I am betting on the former.

Even as the Abramoff affair plays out, there is no national commitment to lobbying reform. There is an attitude of, "What did you expect? They are politicians." There is an assumption that members of Congress are not about the people's business, but about doing the bidding of powerful special interests, including business. There is no national commitment to real lobbying reform because there is a deep distrust of government generally and Congress specifically.

Nevertheless, this is a time for private-sector executives to take the moral, ethical and legal high ground. They can be very clear about what they will and will not tolerate in communicating their views to legislators at all levels of government. They can reject lobbying by loophole. And they can hold accountable --that's the polite word for dismiss -- those who violate ethical and legal standards. These things should make their companies models of corporate behavior and gain the approval of employees, customers, suppliers, and competitors. Who knows, they might even influence some legislators.

John McClenahen is a senior editor of IndustryWeek. He is based in Maryland.

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