The term “lobbying” originated during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant who regularly drank brandy at Washington, D.C.’s famous Willard Hotel. Grant would be approached in the lobby by people seeking favors. Thus today the term “lobbyists” defines those who try to influence lawmakers on behalf of their clients. In most cases lobbyists’ requests are consistent with the public good, but not always.
The Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006, reported from the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which I chair and now being debated by the full Senate, is aimed squarely at guarding the public good. Through earmark reform, banning gifts from lobbyists and limiting third party funded travel for Senators, the bill seeks to protect Senators and the public from abusive influence peddling.
Earmarks: This term refers to the process by which Members of Congress add funding to the federal budget for individual items or local projects. There is a proper place for earmarking. It frankly is part of what you elected me to do. As your Senator I know much more about our state’s needs than some bureaucrat sitting at a desk in Washington, Maryland or Virginia. Despite claims by the Executive Branch or federal agencies that they should set spending priorities, the Founding Fathers gave Congress the “power of the purse.”
But I understand that the earmark process can be abused. Earmarks often are slipped into bills at midnight with little notice. Our reform bill requires that legislative conference reports include a list of all earmarks, a record of which Senator requested them and why they’re needed, and a requirement that the earmarks listing be available for review by the Senate and the public at least 24 hours before their consideration. This reporting will make the process more transparent and allow a better understanding of these expenditures and the reasoning behind them.
Gifts and Travel: Senators currently can accept from lobbyists gifts valued below $50. Can a gift under $50 influence the course of national policy? I don’t think so. But our bill proposes banning all gifts from lobbyists and foreign agents.
Beyond that, this bill further clarifies third party funded travel by Senators. It would be counterproductive to outright ban all third party funded travel, because most of it consists of educational, matter-of-fact conferences which help your elected officials better understand the issues of the day.
However, in recognition that Congressional travel paid by outside parties certainly can be abused, our bill proposes some very tough pre-clearance requirements for any such travel. To qualify for a trip funded by a non-governmental third party, a Senator must first obtain permission from the Senate Ethics Committee. The trip’s sponsor must certify to that Committee that the trip is not financed by lobbyists, directly or indirectly. A detailed trip itinerary must be provided, along with written documentation by the Senator that the trip is primarily educational and consistent with official duties. No later than 30 days after the trip, the Senator is required to file a description of the trip’s meetings and events and name any lobbyist who accompanied the Senator during the trip. After that, the information must be reported on the Senator’s website. But it doesn’t stop there. If a corporate plane is involved, our bill requires the Senator to disclose the plane’s owner and the names of everyone on board during the trip.
Though it didn’t get its official name until Grant’s time, “lobbying” has been around in some form or fashion since the first days of our republic. Because the Constitution protects the right of citizens to “petition” their government officials, lobbying will always be with us. But by mandating more reporting and transparency, we can make the system tougher for Senators and lobbyists to abuse, and easier for the public to see what’s happening. Then the public can judge this activity for itself, based on clear, transparent reporting.
Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column.
Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (Attn: Press Office) or Email: email@example.com