Lobbying Reform: Let's Cut the Family Ties

So the enthusiasm for lobbying reform, so high in the early days of the Abramoff scandal, is rapidly losing momentum in both houses of Congress.

"People have turned to other issues," says Sen. Susan Collins, one of the main backers of a Senate bill aimed at tightening lobbying laws. "This was our window, and I'm afraid it will be slammed shut." Watch your fingers, reformers!

"We have not moved as expeditiously as we would have liked," says Rep. David Dreier, who was tapped to lead the GOP's reform effort in the House. "There are still people who feel very strongly about the need to make some changes, and there are people who are not as enthused." Care to name any names, Congressman?

With an estimated $10 billion spent annually to influence legislation and regulations, does it come as a surprise that lobbying reform has been derailed?

But before the reform window is completely slammed -- and then nailed -- shut, allow me to make a modest proposal that even those unenthused members of Congress might be willing to consider.

It's a very simple suggestion, one most Americans can relate to -- and I do mean relate: Let's make it illegal for family members of legislators to work as lobbyists.

The last few years have seen a surge in registered lobbyists with blood or marital ties to our nation's leaders. Apparently the already-too-cozy-for-comfort relationship between our elected representatives and those paid handsomely to lobby them -- including the multitudes that regularly segue from public office to the cushy offices of K Street -- just isn't familiar enough for some clients. To guarantee success they want their All Access Passes to include admission to the bedrooms and kitchen tables of those in power. Which is why a lobbyist's strongest resume-builder is not some relevant degree or work experience, but sharing DNA or a primary residence with a Capitol Hill power player.

Among those lobbyists making friends and influencing family members in our nation's capital are Scott Hatch, and Joshua Hastert, the sons of Senator Orrin Hatch and House Speaker Denny Hastert; Abigail and Amy Blunt, the wife and daughter of GOP Whip Roy Blunt; Kimberly Dorgan and Bob Dole, the spouses of Senators Byron Dorgan and Elizabeth Dole; and Phyllis Landrieu, Sen. Mary Landrieu's aunt.

The silliest symptom of this epidemic of nepotism on the Potomac has got to be the unlikely rise of Chet Lott, the son of erstwhile Majority Leader Trent Lott. Before getting into the lobbying game, Chet worked as a Domino's Pizza franchisee -- world renowned as the perfect training ground for future Washington power brokers. Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Domino's. Now instead of taking orders for extra cheese, he pushes the piping-hot agendas of clients like BellSouth, munitions maker Day & Zimmerman, and the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists. None of whom, I'm sure, hired young Chet because his dad is an influential U.S. Senator. (Maybe it's because Chet promised that if he couldn't deliver the legislation they'd ordered in 30 minutes it would be free -- some habits are hard to break.)

Of course, Chet and his Dad vehemently deny any impropriety. Chet swears he and his father have even agreed in writing never to discuss his clients. Gee whiz.

Nudging Chet Lott at the K Street trough is Joshua Hastert, the eldest of Dennis Hastert's litter. After extensive experience owning a record store called Seven Dead Arson, the young Hastert came to Washington and worked first at the lobbying firm of Federal Legislative Associates. In 2003, he moved on to PodestaMatoon, a lobbying firm that represents a number of diverse interests, such as Environmental Chemical Corp., Cingular Wireless, Lockheed Martin, Altria, the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, the US Commonwealth Of The Northern Mariana Islands, United Airlines, Clear Channel, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, and Qualcomm. "The fact that he is the speaker's son was certainly a factor," said David Miller, managing partner at his old firm, Federal Legislative Associates, "but he's really cool." I know plenty of cool twenty-somethings who couldn't land that job based on their coolness alone.

Now, I'm all for family values -- but not when they devalue the public interest. Which these "all in the family" interactions clearly do. And since I know how hard it is to resist a cherished child or a doting mate, let's remove the temptation to put family first and simply make it illegal for elected officials to have spouses or children who are lobbyists. Let 'em go back to slinging pizza. There's no shame in that.

And I don't really care which half of the improper pairing -- leader or lobbyist -- steps down, just so long as the new sign hanging over the roadway connecting K Street to Capitol Hill reads: "Limit One Per Family."

Any single, childless lawmaker out there willing to take up the cause?