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Washington Gearing up for Lobbying Reform

The U.S. Congress is seeking 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 lead to corruption charges against several lawmakers.

Lobbying is a Business

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 two billion dollars 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. "It works like a PR campaign, even if they don't get any legislative action. Let's take Lockheed Martin (Aerospace Company), for instance,” said Alex Knott. “They've spent 54 million dollars since 1998. Meanwhile, just from the Department of Defense, between 1998 and 2003, they've received 94 billion dollars -- 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.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, however, admitted to not only to bribing public officials, but also defrauding his own clients, American Indian tribes who hired him to protect their interests in casino gambling. Abramoff even represented different tribes who competed for the same business.

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,” said Fred Wertheimer. “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."

Reform Proposals

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 and lengthen the time former members of Congress must wait before becoming lobbyists themselves.

The U.S. Constitution protects the fundamental right of companies and individuals alike to assemble as they wish and, in the words of the First Amendment, "to petition the government for redress of grievances," in other words, to lobby.

David Boze, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, says lobbying gives the public a voice in the decisions of government. "But what it turns into when you have a government that puts three trillion dollars on the plate, it turns into a mad scramble for that money,” said David Boze. “So most organizations in Washington; you walk down K Street, and look at the names of the lobbies. Most of those people are here not because they want a redress of their grievances, but because they want a piece of the pie."

Mr. Boze notes that unscrupulous lobbyists use any means necessary to get more than they deserve.

Government Promises Swift Action Against Corruption

This includes bribery, which implicates government officials who take them. "Government officials and government action are not for sale", said Alice Fisher, the U.S. Deputy Attorney General, and added that the Justice Department will aggressively investigate and prosecute cases like Abramoff's, which have a devastating impact on the public's trust in government. "We will not shy away from that responsibility no matter where the trail leads,” said Alice Fisher.

That trail is expected to lead to Congress. Jack Abramoff, in a deal with prosecutors to get a reduced sentence, is likely to point out lawmakers who accepted his bribes.

Fred Wertheimer says Washington corruption scandals usually affect the majority party. "That doesn't mean there are no efforts to influence the minority parties, but the principle efforts almost always involve the party in power, the party or the individuals from that party who can deliver results,” says Wertheimer.

Today, that means the Republican Party. In the 1980s, it was the Democrats in Congress. Several were arrested after they accepted bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab oil sheikhs.

The Cato Institute's David Boze says honest lawmakers are those who come to Washington to serve the people or to advance a specific idea. He says those who fall victim to material temptations lack the strength to do what is right. "It's moral weakness, but it's also specifically philosophical weakness. If you're not here for any particular purpose, then you're going to find yourself very comfortable taking dinners from lobbyists,” said David Boze.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 says it is human nature to take advantage of any system, but that voluntary respect for the law as well as strong enforcement are the best ways to keep corruption to a minimum. "Another key to complying with rules is an understanding that the rules are going to be applied to everyone in the same way; that there is not one set of rules for the powerful and the wealthy, and another set of rules for everyone else,” said Fred Wertheimer.

Jack Abramoff and those he allegedly bribed are not the first, nor are they likely to be the last, corrupt individuals in Washington. Having pleaded guilty, Abramoff will be sentenced to considerable time in jail. If prosecutors find corroborating evidence against any politicians he names, they too could lose the freedom and power they once enjoyed.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.