Still, it's not entirely clear how much the Senate's action will really matter. The agreement will have to pass muster in the House of Representatives, which has been much less enthusiastic about the reforms somewhat surprisingly, since the members of Congress closest to Abramoff were mainly House Republicans. New House Majority Leader John Boehner has pushed for a go-slow approach on the reforms, although he says the House will take them up over the next month. Boehner and House Speaker Dennis Hastert had publicly disagreed about a proposed ban on private travel, although Boehner has now suggested he could support a temporary ban until Congress created a system to pre-approve all trips.
Democrats have tried to separate themselves on the issue from Republicans, attacking several key Republicans as being beholden to special interest groups. A group called the Campaign for a Cleaner Congress, affiliated with a liberal-leaning group called American Family Voices, is putting out an analysis today that shows over the last six years that Boehner, the No. 2 Republican in the House, has taken more than 100 trips to locations other than his congressional district that were funded by his political action committee, his campaign committee or private groups, all of which receive much of their funds from lobbyists. The group says Boehner takes more trips outside his district, often to play golf, than he does to see his constituents in the Cincinnati area. Boehner's office disputes the analysis, saying the Majority Leader often makes the 9-hour drive back to his district, so just counting his flights is misleading.
But corruption in the nation's capital may not be a partisan issue at all, at least as far as the voters see it, and that fact alone may help slow down any momentum for far-reaching reforms. Polls show voters so far don't think there is much difference between the two parties when it comes to ethics; they simply assume both parties are equally close to lobbyists and interests groups. And while Democrats in the Senate did offer a more far-reaching reform bill that Republicans rejected this week, the two parties' approaches to fixing the lobbyist problems have been pretty similar. Democrats last week joined Republicans in voting down a measure that more-reform minded members like John McCain and outside groups have called for: an independent office in Congress that would investigate potential ethics violations by members.
Even if Congress eventually passes the Senate reforms, the influence of lobbyists won't end. As long as Congress is doling out billions in special project money, groups will hire lobbyists to make sure they get their share. And while some members, mainly Republicans, have suggested that the real solution to lobbying reform is fixing the budget process so Congress isn't doling out money for individual projects in congressional districts, that's highly unlikely to happen. Tom Coburn, a freshman Senator from Okalahoma, has already become one of his chamber's more unpopular members by repeatedly going to the floor of the Senate and deriding his colleagues for all the money they bring back home to their districts and states.
Moreover, with the constant need to raise money for political campaigns, lobbyists are an invaluable tool to help members of Congress. While the fallout from the Abramoff scandal has resulted in some members' canceling parties and fundraisers hosted by interest groups, lobbyists and the groups they work will remain among the biggest donors in politics. And the reality is, for all the talk about lobbying reform, Congress has never been known to bite the hand that feeds it.