News outlets falsely reported that GOP ethics reform plan would ban lobbyist-paid travel

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

News outlets reported that the Republican-sponsored ethics reform package would ban lobbyist-paid travel. But the proposed reform measure would still allow lobbyist-paid meals and trips as long as they were offered as campaign fundraising activities.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) January 17 announcement of a Republican-sponsored ethics reform package was widely reported throughout the media as including a ban on lobbyist-paid travel and meals. In fact, an apparent loophole in Hastert's reform proposal would allow such perks to continue. While the GOP reform package addresses both congressional lobbying rules and the legal disclosure requirements, it does not cover the third area of lobbyist regulation -- campaign finance. As a result, even if the travel ban included in the Republican proposal is ultimately signed into law, lobbyists could still provide lavish trips and meals to members of Congress and their staffs as long as such activities were characterized as campaign fundraisers.

Despite the existence of this loophole, numerous news outlets unequivocally described Hastert's proposal as banning privately funded travel:

  • A January 18 Los Angeles Times article headlined "Lawmakers May Have to Fund Own Trips," by staff writers Mary Curtius and Richard Simon, reported that Hastert "had proposed putting an end to one of the most popular perks on Capitol Hill -- travel paid for by private groups." The article further asserted: "If the proposals became law, they would significantly change the way business is done on Capitol Hill."
  • A January 18 Associated Press article by reporter Jim Abrams stated that the proposed legislation "would ban privately funded travel" and quoted Hastert saying, "We have a duty to do everything we can to keep the trust and confidence of our constituents."
  • A January 18 USA Today article by reporter Jim Drinkard similarly stated that "the emerging [GOP] package will include a ban on privately financed trips such as those [indicted Republican lobbyist Jack] Abramoff arranged for members of Congress that included golf outings."
  • On the January 17 broadcast of CBS Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer asserted that the "far-reaching" GOP reform plan would "stop privately funded travel for members and staff."
  • On the January 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, congressional correspondent Brian Wilson claimed that the Republican House leaders had proposed "a ban on privately-funded travel."

By contrast, in a January 18 Washington Post article headlined "Loophole in Lobbying Bill Leaves Wiggle Room," staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum reported ethics experts' concerns that Hastert's reform plan would do little to curb the prevalence of lobbyist-paid travel and meals:

According to lobbyists and ethics experts, even if Hastert's proposal is enacted, members of Congress and their staffs could still travel the world on an interest group's expense and eat steak on a lobbyist's account at the priciest restaurants in Washington.

The only requirement would be that whenever a lobbyist pays the bill, he or she must also hand the lawmaker a campaign contribution. Then the transaction would be perfectly okay.

[...]

The plans offered by Republican leaders yesterday would change two of the three areas of law or regulation that govern lobbyists' behavior: the congressional rules that limit gifts to lawmakers and the laws that dictate the amount of disclosure that lobbyists must give the public.

A third major area -- campaign finance laws -- would go untouched, an omission that amounts to a gaping loophole in efforts to distance lobbyists from the people they are paid to influence.

Anything that members of Congress can now do in the pursuit of money for their reelections will still be permitted in the future -- including accepting lobbyist-paid travel and in-town meals -- unless campaign finance laws are altered.

A separate January 18 Post article by staff writer Jonathan Weisman, "Republicans Propose Restrictions On Lobbying," also highlighted the loophole and further noted that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), following a January 17 press conference, said that he was aware of it and pledged, "We will fix that." McCain announced at the press conference that he is currently crafting a bipartisan Senate proposal addressing ethics reforms.

From the January 17 edition of CBS Evening News:

SCHIEFFER: When lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty and promised to help prosecutors track down members of Congress who may have taken bribes, legislators rushed to sever connections with him. His campaign contributions were donated to charity. And now today, House Republican leaders proposed a far-reaching ethics reform package that would ban gifts from all lobbyists to members and their staff, stop privately-funded travel for members and staff, and change from one year to two years the amount of time that must elapse before former members and staffers may lobby.

From the January 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

WILSON: Speaker of the House Denny Hastert asked David Dreier [R-CA], the chairman of the House Rules Committee, to head up the house effort, and today Dreier revealed some of the reform ideas being contemplated, things like a ban on privately funded travel, a significantly stronger gift ban, expanding the post-employment lobbying ban to two years, and stronger and more frequent disclosure on the part of lobbyists. As soon as the House is back in session, Dreier says House Republicans will push through a big change.

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