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Senate Panel Takes Up Lobbying Reform

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

After months of reports about scandals and plea deals, members of a Senate committee today took up the issue of lobbying reform. There appears to be consensus on some reforms, such as changes to rules about gifts and slowing the revolving door between Congress and the lobbying industry. Other issues are not so clear-cut as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: There is bi-partisan agreement that a cloud hangs over the Capitol a cloud by the name of Jack Abramoff. His guilty plea on corruption-related charges has set lawmakers scrambling to change the way lobbyists interact with members of Congress. Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman says the rare chance to enact reforms is the cloud's silver lining.

JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: We now have a once in a generation opportunity to reach agreement on a broad set of lobbying reforms that will reduce the cynicism with which many of the American people view their government. Frankly, the status quo stinks and cries out to us to lead the way in clearing the air.

NAYLOR: But Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said lobbyists aren't what's wrong, it's Congress itself.

TOM COBURN: Until we change the motivation that the next election is more important than the next generation, we won't solve problems. The problem is us.

NAYLOR: Coburn says Congress needs to end the practice of earmarks whereby a member of Congress can insert a spending project into a bill at the last minute and unnoticed by the rest of Congress. But there is, as yet, no sense of how to go about this. Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico noted that earmarks don't just grow on spending bills.

PETE DOMENICI: I found a huge earmark in a tax bill that had to do with funding cancer centers in the states. And you would be amazed at how it's written. And nobody's thinking about that, they all think it's a earmark in appropriations, but that's 150 million dollars going somewhere because how they wrote it.

NAYLOR: Another sticky problem is travel. While there's agreement that lobbyists shouldn't be able to pay for lawmakers trips, whether outside groups can is something of a gray area. Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine wondered about the validity of fact-finding trips paid for by environmental groups and oil companies hoping to show lawmakers the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge known as ANWR.

SUSAN COLLINS: Is it a problem to have environmental groups taking members to show them their view of ANWR and industry groups offering trips to go see ANWR? We're not talking about trips to Paris here, we're not talking about trips to play golf.

NAYLOR: Former Michigan Governor, John Engler, now head of the National Association of Manufacturers, says its important for lawmakers to see firsthand everything from ANWR to China. Engler warned of a potential backlash if such trips can only be taxpayer funded Congressional Delegations known as CODELS.

JOHN ENGLER: I fear that if we restrict this to CODELS that the taxpayer cost of this grows so great so fast that somebody will be running against members because they spent all of this taxpayers' money traveling.

NAYLOR: But others argue privately funded trips were just another way of spreading influence. Congress hopes to find a consensus on all this later this winter.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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