Obama addresses lobbying reform
Lawmakers must change the way they deal with lobbyists and work more to serve the public in order to regain Americans' trust in the government, said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at a Lobbying Reform Summit Thursday cosponsored by AU's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies and the Committee for Economic Development.
Obama compared the current state of the government to the government that existed during the Industrial Revolution when big business heavily influenced policymakers.
"Today, I think we face a similar crisis - the crisis of corruption," he said.
There are approximately 140,000 associations that actively lobby at the state, local and federal level in the U.S., according to AU Professor James Thurber, director of the center.
There are about 150,000 people in the lobbying industry in D.C., he said. In 2004, about $2 billion was spent lobbying on the Hill, he said, which comes to about $407,000 spent per month per member of Congress.
Corruption has occurred in both the Democratic and the Republican parties over the years, but the scandals that have happened during the Bush administration are far worse than anyone could have imagined, Obama said.
"We've seen the head of the White House procurement office led out of his office in handcuffs," he said. "We've seen some of our most powerful leaders, of both the House and the Senate, under federal investigation."
Some are arguing that this is a bi-partisan scandal by giving the defense that "everybody does it," according to Obama.
"Not everybody does do it," he said.
Five panelists contributed to the discussion and presented varying viewpoints on how lobbying should be
regulated. Almost all agreed that two major issues of concern are the enforcement of lobbying reform and privately funded travel for members of Congress.
Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former member of Congress, said no matter how well the lobbying industry is reformed, the reforms will not succeed unless they are implemented and enforced.
"Congressional leaders must take the lead in enforcing reforms," he said.
Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, an organization that represents the public interest in enforcement of campaign and media law, said the U.S. has seen cycles of reform over time with scandals such as Watergate and Enron. These cycles can be the only time to change underlying problems in the system, he said.
"It's important to do that at the time everyone is focused on it," Potter said.
Travel is a critical aspect of being a lawmaker, but recreational trips funded by outside interests are not in the public's interest because they allow lobbyists unfettered access to the lawmaker, Hamilton said.
"Think tanks and public policy institutes also have an agenda of their own," he said.
The best way to end expensive trips that lobbyists fund is to ban all private funding for travel for members of Congress, Hamilton said.
Obama said since he has been in politics, he has not let outside interests try to bribe him.
"It turns out I get paid enough to buy my own lunch," he said.
Joe Minarek, senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development, said CED's business leader trustees will collaborate with Thurber for a research project examining the broad range of behaviors in political Washington.
"Lobbying is one of a family of
interconnected problems in the way Washington works or doesn't work today," he said.