Timothy P. Carney: How GOP can trump Dems on special interests

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Democrats' failed DISCLOSE Act, which would restrict political speech in the name of reducing corporate influence, is hard to read as anything but a political cudgel and a cynical sham to empower incumbents. Republicans should respond with real reform measures that curb special interests rather than aiding K Street and congressmen.

DISCLOSE doesn't check the power of big business -- it instead picks winners and losers.

Unions, which favor Democrats almost exclusively, are exempted from many requirements the bill would impose on corporations, which favor Democrats only slightly. The most powerful lobbies -- the National Rifle Association and AARP -- also get exemptions.

The measure bans political speech by corporations receiving Troubled Asset Relief Program money and government contracts, but not speech by companies pocketing any of the other federal handouts, such as clean energy grants or export loan guarantees.

Most importantly, the measure restricts political communications to the public, but not efforts to influence politicians. That is, it disadvantages public discourse in favor of backroom lobbying.

Politicians benefit because it becomes harder to publicly criticize them, but also because the bill funnels companies through the K Street-Capitol Hill gantlet.

Enhancing the power of lobbyists is good for Democrats. In the House, they have raised twice as much from lobbyists this election cycle -- $5.3 million -- as have House Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Senate Democrats' advantage is even greater: $3.7 million to $1.5 million. The top four recipients of lobbyist cash this election are Senate Democrats, with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and DISCLOSE sponsor Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at the top.

And lobbyists make great fundraisers. Schumer, for instance, has pocketed more than $870,000 this election from lobbyist "bundlers" -- lobbyists who raise funds for Schumer for no pay, except presumably access. One of Schumer's bundlers is his former banking staffer who now lobbies for seven hedge funds and private equity firms.

Republicans are correct to stand in unified opposition to such a nakedly cynical proposal, but they ought to have a counterproposal -- one that actually would diminish undue influence of special interests.

Republicans should support the bill sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., which would close the most tawdry of Washington's revolving doors -- congressmen and senators cashing out to become lobbyists. These men monetize their "public service." According to Talking Points Memo, there are at least 172 former members serving as registered lobbyists.

Tester's bill would impose a lifetime ban on former House members and senators lobbying Congress. Republicans should see how Reid, Schumer, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., react to this bill, not to mention Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who said in January he was quitting the Senate "to work on energy policy in the private sector."

Next, Republicans should pick up where Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., left off. The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee has barred his former aides from lobbying him or his committee staff for as long as he holds the gavel.

Republicans should make this a law or at least a House rule: Committee staff who leave are permanently banned from lobbying their former committee and member staff are similarly banned from lobbying their former boss or his staff.

As the Democratic staffers who wrote the health care bill and the financial regulation bill flock to K Street to help drug companies and banks game the new system, this measure could help expose the cynicism behind Obama's "reforms."

Next, the GOP should improve campaign finance disclosure. Currently, senators don't file digital campaign finance reports. They send in paper forms every quarter which the Federal Election Commission scans.

Fix that, and make campaign filing more frequent. Make campaigns file digital reports every Monday, and have them online right away.

These reforms would restrict politicians, while the DISCLOSE Act would empower them. For that reason, it would be almost as hard to get support from GOP lawmakers -- many of whom are eying their big payout -- as from Democrats.

Before they can do that, however, Republicans need to ask themselves if at heart they're conservatives or K Streeters.

Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner's lobbying editor. His K Street column appears on Wednesdays.

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