Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The Republican and Democratic versions of lobbyist reform trotted out last week had very different styles. The austere Republican presentation professed desire for bipartisanship. The gaudy Democratic show equated the GOP with original sin. But each fell short of what is called for by the reformer most widely respected by the public, Sen. John McCain.

"I'm very disappointed," McCain told me, "to see the Democrats trying to turn this issue into attacking Republicans." But he was no less upset with open avowal by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the House Republican establishment of earmarking funds that McCain considers the seedbed of lobbyist corruption. The Democrats, in their anti-Republican light show, ignored earmarks.

A reform of a system that has grown ever more rotten must have two salient characteristics in McCain's view. It must be bipartisan, and it must eviscerate, if not eliminate, earmarks. McCain exerts extraordinary influence for a politician without a formal leadership role or a government office, but the magnitude of his task is awesome. He must convince Democrats to cooperate with Republicans when they now see an opportunity to crush the GOP, and he must wean his own party from its addiction to government pork.

Rep. David Dreier, a member of the Republican leadership as chairman of the House Rules Committee, discovered the difficulty of McCain's first task two weeks ago when Hastert assigned him to come up with a lobbying reform package. Initially, he approached the ranking Democrat on Rules, Rep. Louise Slaughter, who, like many House Democrats, has grown acerbic as the party enters its 12th year in the minority. She responded to Dreier's appeal for bipartisanship with cold shoulder and hot tongue.

Dreier next went to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who is viewed by Republicans as the ablest Democrat in the House but one with whom they can do business. Dreier first got the impression Hoyer might cooperate on lobbyist reform. But when that word leaked out, Dreier found Hoyer totally uninterested. "This is not a problem of rules," Hoyer told me he informed Dreier. "It's a problem of conduct, Republican conduct." If so, I suggested, the only solution is a return to Democratic control of Congress, and Hoyer said I got that right.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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