K Streeters have reason to be worried, as President Bush yesterday signed into law a new bill that bans lobbyists from giving gifts to members of the Congress.
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, approved by the House this summer, has also imposed tougher penalties for lobbying violations. Anyone who “knowingly and corruptly fails to comply with any provision” of the Lobbying Disclosure Act will be subject to up to five years in prison for false certifications.
Across the Capitol Hill, the bill has been widely hailed as an overhaul of the Congress whose reputation has been tarnished by a spate of lobbying scandals for the past few years. That may be. But this firstly is a victory of the Democrats. As Republicans got seriously hurt by their cozy ties with big corporations, Democrats rose to assume control of the House on promises of breaking a fine line between lawmakers and lobbyists.
However, it’s another matter whether the Democrats’ rhetoric could become a reality. As the Roll Call reported in its latest issue,
“The provisions in the 61-page legislation either find new ways to ban activities that are already forbidden, or simply increase the penalties for violating existing rules that are rarely enforced.”
Let’s dissect some key rules the bill has contained.
While the new act bans lobbyists from giving “anything of value to anyone in a lawmaker's office” (they were previously allowed to make gifts of $50 or less), K Street professionals can easily bypass the restriction by funding campaigns, rather than a decent meal for the lawmaker they have favored.
As for the criminal charge, considered by many as a ground-breaking measure, a key question is whether it will really be put into practice. The lax enforcement of previous disclosure requirement makes me suspicious if any Congressional member will face as little as one month in jail or a 6 figure fine for a breach of the law.
Stricter regulations may not solve the problem. Instead, let’s take a clue from the sports business. We should require senators who accept money from lobbyists to wear clothes with sponsors’ logo. It won’t be a badge-sized sign on the chest; rather, it must be big enough to be observed within walking distance. And it follows that the larger the donation, the bigger the logo.
Donors’ name should also become a part of lawmakers’ title. As universities have successfully pioneered in setting up a number of high-paying corporate professorships, Congress should, according to its members' sources of funding, also place a chief contributor's name ahead of their title. And then we will see General Electric Senator, Goldman Sachs Congressman and the list goes on...
This is a viable solution, as it allows constituents to better understand their representative and his financial backers. Some people may feel uncomfortable. However, if the measure can help produce a new breed of lawmakers, it’s worth a try.