Monday, January 23
Lobbying reform has been advocated in recent years by elected officials as different from one another as Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. What they have had in common is an inability to make any headway with an arrogant, lazy leadership. That changed dramatically with the indictment of ultra-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the same officials who blocked reform are now noisily advocating it, while dumping money contaminated with Mr. Abramoff's fingerprints on the favorite charity of their choice. It is a sorry spectacle, but a necessary one.

Lobbying is not an inherently evil profession but, much like politics, it tends to attract shady characters looking for a quick route to power and fortune. When a Jack Abramoff meets up with a Tom DeLay, the resultant corruption can poison much of government and hurt the average American who ends up paying for projects and programs that exist only because of the influence of their advocates. It is a problem in states, but in Washington, the seat of power and the repository of federal tax dollars, it is dramatically magnified.

Speaker Dennis Hastert got the reform ball rolling with a welcome and long overdue proposal to ban privately funded travel. So-called fact-finding trips to Caribbean enclaves and exclusive golf resorts have long been the preferred method of the likes of Abramoff to win over the likes of Robert Ney, an Ohio Republican susceptible to lobbying, to favored causes. These travel excursions are indefensible and should not restricted, as in the past, but prohibited entirely.

The danger, however, is that the Republican leadership will do just that, pass a few other restrictions, and announce that lobbying has been reformed. Banning privately funded travel only scratches at the surface of a problem that is complicated and deep-rooted.

The connection between lobbying and campaign fund-raising is a larger issue, as lobbyists are currently allowed to host fund-raisers for elected officials that raise dollars in six and seven figures. The officials are then far more beholden to the lobbyist than they would be if they had done no more than accept tickets and a plane trip to the Super Bowl.

The revolving door that allows hospital industry lobbyist Thomas Scully to serve briefly as Medicare chief before returning to lobbying, this time as a lobbyist for the prescription drug companies who benefit from the Medicare drug bill he oversaw, poses the biggest problem of all. Unless the door leading to this kind of cynical abuse is closed, no amount of travel restrictions will matter.