Clinton-Gingrich Handshake May Be No Boon for Lobbying Reform
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Far from giving a boost to reform of lobbying and campaign finance laws, President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich may have created a delay by agreeing to kick the issues to a study commission.
Congress came close to enacting lobby and gift reform last year, and there have been encouraging signs that a bill could be enacted in this session. It was Gingrich who took the lead in killing last year’s version.
Just two days before the two leaders made a spur-of-the-moment decision based on an audience question Sunday, the Senate had agreed to take up a lobby reform bill before the end of July. At the same time, a House subcommittee is aiming to produce a bipartisan lobbying bill before Congress’ summer break.
``There’s no need for a commission,″ said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., sponsor of a lobbying bill. ``The lobby reform and gift ban have been debated into the ground. They don’t need to be studied more.″
Work is proceeding; the issue ``is not on the back burner,″ added a Republican House aide who was confounded by the impromptu decision to turn the matter over to a commission.
At least on the lobbying reform issue, creating a blue-ribbon commission would probably delay action well into next year’s election season, said congressional aides of both parties. All expressed surprise at Sunday’s agreement during a Clinton-Gingrich forum in New Hampshire.
Campaign finance reform has been a far more intractable issue for Congress. For more than a decade, lawmakers have deadlocked over issues such as stricter limits on giving by political action committees and public financing of congressional campaigns. Republicans had signaled that they had no interest in grappling with the issue this year after they won control of Capitol Hill.
Even so, Wellstone said, a commission would make little difference. ``Everybody’s perfectly well aware of what’s wrong with the current system. I don’t think it moves the ball forward.″
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Monday that Clinton had instructed his staff to begin exploring with congressional aides ``how we could put together this commission, what would the mandate of the commission be, what type of participants should there be.″
``It’s hard to get people who are currently members of an institution to think through all the issues that surround reform of a system by which they are elected,″ McCurry added. ``So an outside commission of experts in this particular case makes some sense.″
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Gingrich acknowledged a commission would stall pending reform efforts.
``If you are serious about a real commission, I don’t think you rush ahead and pass something,″ Gingrich said at a news conference. Putting campaign finance, lobbying, gift and other reform questions in one package ``is a fascinating idea,″ he said. But he added that the idea could die quickly.
``Frankly if Senate Republicans don’t want it, it won’t happen,″ Gingrich said. He said he would discuss the idea with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole this week.
Ann McBride, president of the private group Common Cause, said it was clear that lobby reform bills are moving forward in Congress, ``and on that, you don’t need a commission.″
But she said such a panel could help achieve reform of campaign finance laws if it is filled with people ``committed to doing something″ and is armed with some mechanism to force Congress to act on its recommendations.
``It is important that it be done in this Congress _ so that the recommendations come back next September, for example,″ she said. ``If not, then it becomes a delaying mechanism.″
Last October, Gingrich launched a withering assault on a pending lobby reform bill, denouncing it because it required disclosure of spending on grass-roots lobbying _ the practice of using phone banks, mailings and advertising to generate public pressure.
Gingrich, then the No. 2 leader of the minority party, enlisted talk shows and fax networks to oppose the bill. It barely passed the House, 215-206, and died in the Senate after Dole took up the same theme.
Democrats later produced a letter in which Gingrich himself had requested that the grass-roots provisions be added to the bill.
Frank MacConnell of Newport, N.H., who asked the question on Sunday that raised the idea of a commission, said ``I didn’t realize the question would stir so much up.″ MacConnell also said he had been unaware that Congress was working toward enacting a lobbying reform bill.