Ban Bibery Now! November 13, 1994Posted on: June 04, 2008
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BAN BRIBERY NOW! November 13, 1994
Supporting the Lobbyist Gift Ban and Disclosure Bill
Now is a good time to draw some lessons from our effort to ban lobbyist bribery of Congress and a good time to look at the future. Were both parties complicit in the failure of the bill? Of course. The Democrats delayed it long enough for the Republicans to be able to filibuster it. Here is a recap of the whole episode and a look ahead.
THE PEOPLE DEMANDED ACTION ON LOBBYIST GIFTS
In early March, 1994, I was watching the TV program, Inside Edition. I saw Senators and their families skiing down the slopes of a Utah ski resort for the weekend, side by side with lobbyists and their families. The event, called the Senators' Ski Cup, was a charity event that was sponsored by the wealthiest corporations in America.
It turned out that the event cost $200,000 to put on, only $50,000 of which went to a children's hospital. The other $150,000, which we paid for through higher prices for the things we buy, was spent on wining and dining the Finest Congress Money Can Buy.
Then I saw that on the same weekend, the Senators' aides, those idealistic twenty-something kids, were being treated to a weekend at Palm Beach, Florida, complete with margaritas and bikini-clad babes. It was enough to make any working person get up and start shouting.
Senator Frank Lautenberg came on next. He said, "Access is power, and lobbyist gifts buy access." He had taken part in such charity events in the past but had decided that enough was enough. It was time to clean up a part of lobbyist corruption of Congress and ban gifts of travel, entertainment, and expensive meals.
He had proposed a bill do this in early 1993, but the Golf and Tennis Caucus in the Senate had sidetracked his bill. On most other issues, the two parties were mired in partisan bickering, but on lobbyist gifts, they cooperated in a bipartisan fashion to keep business as usual.
That TV segment made me very angry. The next day, I phoned up Senator Lautenberg's office and asked the status of his gift ban bill. I was referred to a committee of the Senate, where I found out that the gift ban was in the legislative trash heap. The more I asked around, the more I realized that this bill was dead, dead, dead.
I was getting really tired of this. Why wasn't something being done? Not knowing what else to do, I called up Gary Ruskin of Ralph Nader's Congressional Accountability Project, and asked him to help. I also began writing a newsletter called Ban Bribery Now, which I put out on the Internet. I didn't know how far it would go, but I thought someone should get the word.
Three things began to happen. The first is that editorials started appearing in newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The second was that Senator Lautenberg and Senator Wellstone threatened to introduce their gift ban as a rider to any bill headed for the President\'s signature. And the third is that people all over the country began putting out the word to their members of Congress that they wanted this obscene bribery to stop. This drumbeat from voters across the land continued for the next several months and it made Congress very nervous.
Eventually, after tense maneuvering between the two senators and the Senate leadership, the gift ban got a place on the legislative calendar. What happened over the next several months isn't too important, because in the end the bill lost. But, for the record, here is a quick summary.
The bill passed the Senate 95-4. A lobbying disclosure bill had already passed the House with a weak gift ban in it, but the conference committee between the two houses put the strongest gift ban possible into the compromise bill.
Later, when the bill came out for a final vote in both Houses, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh began attacking it by saying the bill\'s lobbying disclosure rules would force grassroots organizations to turn over their membership lists. United We Stand America issued a statement saying that this was not true. The bill passed the House, but was defeated by a Senate filibuster.
Members of Congress could claim to the voters that they were protecting the grassroots, but it became quite clear later whom they were really protecting. After the vote, Mr. Gingrich was caught telling lobbyists that since it was Republicans who had stopped this bill, the lobbyists should donate even more money to the Republicans.
Then a House staffer cleaning up his desk found a memo signed by Newt Gingrich six months before. The memo asked Tom Foley to strengthen the grassroots disclosure parts of the bill. These were the very parts of the bill Mr. Gingrich later said he "discovered" in the final bill. He was attacking his own handiwork! As I look over a copy of this letter with Mr. Gingrich's signature on it, I realize how much our elected representatives need close supervision by the voters.
Did we lose completely? Or did something good happen because we rose up and demanded action?
First of all, we got lobbying reform on the table, on the front pages of every newspaper, as the leadoff story on the MacNeill Lehrer News Hour, and most impressively of all, we got attacked by Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. As any advertiser will tell you, recognition is half the battle.
Second, we made it a clear difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. If you want anything to happen in Washington these days, you have to make it a partisan issue, one that can win or lose votes. The Democrats lost big time in 1994 because the people wanted reform and they stood in the way. Now lobbying reform is on the lips of everyone from the President on down.
Third, we contributed to Frank Lautenberg's reelection. His office acknowledged that the fight for the gift ban was a big factor in his reelection. We can cash in these chips in 1995.
Fourth, we demonstrated that telecommunications is the organizing tool of the future.
What's the take-home message for us? Lobbying reform is not the orphan issue that everyone thought it was. It is very much alive in 1995, because we showed Members of Congress that it is better to fight the party leadership and push for reform than it is to lose an election.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
I talked with Gary Ruskin after the election. He said that right now Washington is in total confusion. The Democrats know that the people were punishing them, but they are unsure as to why. So we need to tell them why. If we wait too long, they will jump to the wrong conclusions and we will have lost this critical timing.
The Republicans need to hear from us too. They got elected on the basis of a contract which includes important reforms. This country will be better if they really pass. But read the contract. Not one of the reforms except the balanced budget amendment touches the culture of influence. So it's business as usual, except the Republicans are going to be getting more of the yearly $3 million in lobbyist gifts that the Democrats became so accustomed to.
If you want to get anything done in Washington, you have to make your issue something one party can use to attack the other. Machiavelli would say, "Now that the Republicans are in power, go see what the Democrats are willing to give voters in exchange for our support, and put Republicans on the defensive."
The Republican leaders may be brilliant, but they are not saints. If you believe that they are any less prone to corruption than the Democrats, you haven't been around politics very long. If we don\'t keep them on edge, they will quickly adopt the habits of Tom Foley and Dan Rostenkowski.
In a couple of months, Congress will be once again surrounded by tens of thousands of lobbyists. Soon, members and their staffs will start believing that they are the wisest and most wonderful people in the world. It's the lobbyists' job.
The Senator's Ski Cup will take place in 1995, because Congress didn't ban bribery in 1994. Does that bother anyone besides me?
Washington needs to know that we have not forgotten and we will not forget. These three people need to hear from you:
Senator Robert Dole Tel: (202) 224-6521, fax (202) 224-8952 U.S. Senate Washington, DC 20510
Rep. Newt Gingrich Tel: (202) 225-4501, fax (202) 225-4656 House of Representatives Washington, DC 20515
President Bill Clinton Tel: (202) 456-1414 The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Washington, DC 20500
Choose one or everyone to contact. The message: "Live like the people who elected you. Ban lobbyist bribery now. No more gifts of travel, entertainment and fancy meals. No more charity ski weekends."
Piggyback this onto other issues. When you call in about GATT or you contact Washington officials for any other reason, mention the lobbyist gift ban bill. Tell your representatives to take the Common Cause gift ban pledge.
BAN BRIBERY NOW!