The U.S. Congress is moving to reform the nation's lobbying laws in the wake of a Capitol Hill influence peddling scandal that has already led to a guilty plea by once powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff and may yet lead to corruption charges against several lawmakers. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports that lobbying involves huge financial interests, which many say need public oversight to remain in check.
K Street in downtown Washington is sometimes referred to as America's fourth branch of government, because the headquarters of the nation's most influential lobbying firms are located here. Rent is expensive and the lobbyists themselves are well paid. Their fees represent a portion of the $2 billion spent each year by the lobbying industry.
Alex Knott of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group, says those who pay the expenses consider it money well spent.
"In long run, it works like a PR campaign, even if they don't get any legislative action. Let's take Lockheed Martin [Aerospace Company], for instance,” suggests Mr. Knott. “They've spent $54 million since 1998. Meanwhile, just from the Department of Defense between 1998 and 2003, they've received $94 billion, 74 percent of which were no-bid contracts. That goes a long way. Basically it equates to being pennies on the dollar."
Lobbyists represent a very broad spectrum of legitimate interests, from defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, to teachers and even beekeepers. They are hired for their ability to meet and persuade government officials to pass laws, award contracts, or reduce certain kinds of taxes on behalf of their clients.
However, lobbyist Jack Abramoff has admitted to bribing public officials, which is a crime. He is expected to name the individuals who accepted the bribes as part of a plea bargain with prosecutors to reduce his upcoming prison sentence.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an organization that promotes civic values, says such scandals are periodic occurrences in America. "When that happens, it's extremely important that those people are held accountable, that you get a new set of rules to address the problems,” he says. “When we do that, we bring the problems under control. But then the cycle begins again. People try to press the envelope, see how far they can go."
There are several reform proposals from both parties in Congress that address lobbying violations exposed by the Abramoff scandal. The reforms would mandate timely disclosure of contacts between lobbyists and public officials, ban congressional trips paid for by lobbyists, such as golf outings for lawmakers to Scotland, and lengthen the time former members of Congress must wait before becoming lobbyists themselves.
Alex Knott says additional disclosure would enhance a website that the Center for Public Integrity launched in April 2005 to oversee lobbyists.
"Basically, we take every public lobbying record filed since 1998 and put it forth in a way that the public can easily understand. So if they want to understand everybody that lobbied every part of the federal government from the Department of Defense down to the Botanical Garden, they can get it," Mr. Knott told us.
The website, publicintegrity.org, also includes information about foreign organizations or companies from Albania to Zimbabwe that lobby the U.S. Government. China's Hong Kong Trade Development Council, for example, paid more than $5 million over a six-year period to five American lobbying firms. One of those firms was hired by 44 other organizations, including several U.S. pharmaceutical companies and the National Football League.
The right of companies and the people to lobby the government is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The fact that Jack Abramoff abused the privilege does not mean it will taken away, but rather, that Congress will try to find a way to improve the system.