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Lobbying Scandal: Crime of an Individual or of Many?


Ethics will be at the top of the agenda when Congress returns later this month. The scandal around former lobbyist Jack Abramoff is still unfolding. It has already claimed one victim on Capitol Hill. Texas Congressman Tom DeLay has completely abandoned his position as majority leader. And two of the men who hope to replace DeLay have extensive ties to lobbyists, though they're campaigning as reformers. NPR's Mara Liasson has this look at how Republicans in Congress are dealing with the fallout from the Abramoff affair.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

With the House and Senate still in recess, congressional Republicans have yet to reach a consensus about just what kind of problem the party is facing. Go to the Web site of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and it looks like Republicans have decided that the best defense is a good offense. The headlines are all about Democrats who took money from now convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's clients. Brian Nick is the NRSC's communications director. He says the scandal is not a Republican problem.

Mr. BRIAN NICK (Communications Director, NRSC): It's a bipartisan congressional issue. And what we what we know so far from Jack Abramoff's actions as a lobbyist that it spread in a bipartisan way. So it's Republicans and Democrats.

LIASSON: Although a handful of Democrats did get money from Abramoff's clients, the vast majority of members and staff involved are Republicans. And Republican leaders have been getting a earful from their supporters outside the Beltway. Warren Tompkins, a key Republican strategist in South Carolina, says people he talks to are shocked and disgusted.

Mr. WARREN TOMPKINS (Republican Strategist): The problem for the Republicans is the fact that we're in control combined with the fact that we get elected because we're not supposed to do these kinds of things. I mean, they took over the House to get rid of the system that was in place, that had become corrupted over 30 years of one-party dominance and, you know, unfortunately in 10 short years, we've become them. That's what hurts.

LIASSON: There's plenty of political nervousness among Republicans these days, but also a lot of soul searching. When Republicans took over the House in 1994, six of the 10 planks in the Contract with America were about internal House reforms. Former Republican Congressman Vin Weber says that in some ways, Republicans have lost touch with some of their core principles.

Former Representative VIN WEBER (Republican): The conservative party in this country, the party that does not bill itself as the party of government, has to always have a reform element to it or there's not a real reason for it to be the majority. And that's what they've sort of lost of it. They've lost sight of the fact that the natural conservative majority in this country can't become simply the party of government in power. It has to be the party of reforming government, and they've got to get back to that.

LIASSON: There will certainly be lobbying reform legislation in both the House and Senate when members return, but the debate is over what kind of reform. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are both considering legislation that would require more disclosure from lobbyists and an outright ban on lobbyist-funded travel for lawmakers. But for some House members, that doesn't go far enough.

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): Lobbyists aren't the problem. You can't have a corrupt lobbyist without somebody to bribe, and we have created a culture that just breeds corruption.

LIASSON: That's Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake and he's a Republican. He thinks without deeper, more fundamental reform, his party cannot regain the confidence of the public. Flake wants to do away with earmarks, the individual pet projects, otherwise known as pork, that members insert into conference reports.

Rep. FLAKE: I actually have legislation I've pushed for the past five years which would simply say if you have an earmark, fine, come defend it on the House floor. It wouldn't get rid of one earmark per se. Having said that, I think it would get rid of almost all of them because very few people are willing to go to the House floor and defend some of these pork barrel projects.

LIASSON: For years, no one took Flake's legislation seriously. But scandal changes everything and yesterday John Boehner, one of the two candidates for majority leader, endorsed Flake's plan.

In the area of campaign contributions, it remains to be seen if Republicans are willing to go beyond mere disclosure and actually make it harder for lobbyists to raise money for members. A recent Washington Post poll showed that a majority of Americans are willing to go much further and ban all lobbyist gifts and fund raising.

When they come back to Washington, Republicans will have to decide just how much reform they can stomach and how much reform the public, including loyal Republican voters, is demanding. If they don't go far enough, says Warren Tompkins, they could pay a price.

Mr. TOMPKINS: Boehner--in politics has always been the guys that I go hunting and fishing with and they're Republicans. They're hard-core conservatives, but they want and expect honest, good government. And there are certain things that made them Republicans years ago and they're pretty upset. What I get said back to me is, `There's no difference between Republicans and Democrats anymore so it doesn't make any difference who I vote for because they're all going to end up being the same.' That's a horrible problem for us.

LIASSON: A horrible problem, Tompkins says, because those voters could decide to stay home or, even worse, vote for the other party. And then there's another warning from Ian Barron, former Republican Party general counsel and a longtime observer of the cycle of scandal and reform in Washington.

Mr. IAN BARRON (Former Republican Party General Counsel): What we have witnessed every time a scandal like this occurs is that there will be a period where there will be attempts to perhaps rewrite some of the rules, pass a few more laws. I like to say that after a scandal everyone gets religion at least for a while. And I suspect that we will witness a similar cycle in the aftermath of the Abramoff episode.

LIASSON: Barron knows that nothing concentrates the mind like a hanging and right now members are focused on reform, but that's only the first step. Even after it passes new rules, Congress will have to convince the public that members will actually follow them. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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