Congress reform can't wait
By Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann
Congressional Republicans are suddenly taking a strong interest in lobbying reform.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist are rallying behind a reform package that would include measures like increasing disclosure and doubling the length of time after leaving Congress before lawmakers and staff can lobby their colleagues.
These are commendable and desirable reforms. But to get to the root of what ails Washington's political culture, a more basic change is necessary.
The two of us have been immersed in Washington politics for more than 36 years. We have never seen the culture so sick or the legislative process so dysfunctional.
The plea deals of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, the indictment of Tom DeLay and his resignation as House majority leader, and the demise of Rep. Randy Cunningham notwithstanding, this is not simply a problem of a rogue lobbyist or a pack of them. Nor is it a matter of a handful of disconnected, corrupt lawmakers taking favors in return for official actions.
The problem starts not with lobbyists but inside Congress. Over the past five years, the rules and norms that govern congressional deliberation, debate and voting — what legislative aficionados call "the regular order" — have routinely been violated, especially in the House of Representatives, and in ways that mark a dramatic break from custom.
Roll-call votes on the House floor, which are supposed to take 15 minutes, are frequently stretched to one, two or three hours. Rules forbidding any amendments to bills on the floor have proliferated, stifling dissent and quashing legitimate debate.
Omnibus bills, sometimes thousands of pages long, are brought to the floor with no notice, let alone the 72 hours the rules require. Conference committees exclude minority members and cut deals in private, sometimes even adding major provisions after the conference has closed. Majority leaders still pressure members who object to the chicanery to vote yea in the legislation's one up-or-down vote.
To be sure, bills have been passed under this regime, on party-line votes with slender majorities. But the results have not always been true to party objectives or conservative ideals. Democrats aren't the only ones undermined by a process whose methods, like the cynical use of earmarks for pet projects, serve to bloat government bureaucracies.
Some of the abuses are straightforward breaches of the rules. The majority Republicans bypass normal procedures and ignore objections that parliamentary rules have been violated. They then reframe substantive issues as procedural matters that demand party discipline.
Other abuses do not violate the rules, but they do transgress longstanding practice. For example, House rules don't set a maximum period of 15 minutes for most roll call votes. But since the advent of electronic voting in 1973, 15 minutes has been the norm.
In 1987, when the majority Democrats once — and only once — stretched a budget vote to 30 minutes because they found themselves unexpectedly down by one vote when time was supposed to expire, the minority Republicans loudly protested, with their whip, Dick Cheney, saying it was the worst abuse of power he had ever seen in Congress.
Now it is routine to bring up a bill and troll for enough votes to pass it, even when a clear majority of the House — 218 members — has voted nay.
What has all this got to do with corruption? If you can play fast and loose with the rules of the game in lawmaking, it becomes easier to consider playing fast and loose with everything else, including relations with lobbyists, acceptance of favors, the use of official resources and the discharge of governmental power.
We saw similar abuses leading to similar patterns of corruption during the Democrats' majority reign. But they were neither as widespread nor as audacious as those we have seen in the past few years.
The arrogance of power that was evident in Democratic lawmakers like Jack Brooks of Texas — the 21-term Democrat who was famed for twisting the rules to get pork for his district — is now evident in a much wider range of members and leaders, who all seem to share the attitude that because they are in charge, no one can hold them accountable.
Indeed, Hastert showed open contempt for the House ethics process last year when he fired the Republican chairman of the ethics committee and ousted two Republican members after they did their duty and reprimanded DeLay for three violations of standards.
Hastert then appointed two members to the committee who had given large sums to the DeLay legal defense fund — when the main matter pending before the committee involved DeLay.
The same attitude produced the K Street Project, in which the new Republican majority, led by DeLay, used its governmental power to demand that trade associations and lobbying groups fire Democratic lobbyists and hire designated Republicans, who could then be expected to show their gratitude by contributing generously to party candidates and committees. Jack Abramoff was one of the progenitors of that initiative.
What can be done? First, Hastert; Rep. David Dreier, the Rules Committee chairman; and the new House majority leader should declare that there will be a return to the regular order and to a reasonable deliberative process. And they must be prepared to follow through on that declaration.
But there are also rules reforms that would help. Two- or three-hour votes should become a thing of the past. Any major bill should be presented at least three days before it is considered, unless a supermajority votes to waive that rule.
Votes should be required on objections to excessive earmarking in bills, and members should be required to declare that they have no personal interest in the earmarks they promote.
Real debate and reasonable amendments must be allowed on most bills, and the integrity of conference committees needs to be re-established. Finally, if there is to be real and credible ethics oversight, that process, too, must be overhauled.
Quick and decisive congressional actions could minimize the damage done by the explosion of scandals related to Abramoff. But lobbying reform alone is a temporary solution. The real solution is for Congress to behave like the deliberative body it is supposed to be.