Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The cream of Washington's lobbyists gather next Monday evening on Capitol Hill, paying at least $1,000 apiece, to listen to Sen. Ted Stevens, the doughty and defiant president pro tempore of the Senate. In the climate of lobbyist and earmark reform, they will hear plenty.

The 82-year-old Stevens put his fabled temper on display as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee last Thursday when he browbeat a federal bureaucrat for diminishing largesse to his beloved Alaska. Stevens, the Senate's senior Republican, bemoaned the assault on the earmark, an instrument he has refined -- enabling the individual lawmaker to override the executive branch's control of spending.

Sen. John McCain has described a symbiotic relationship between lobbyists and earmarks breeding a climate of corruption. A freewheeling lobbyist can enrich himself and his friends, bypassing regular governmental and legislative procedures, by earmarking funds in legislation as he maximized money for Alaska. Nobody has accused Stevens of any part in this scandalous system. But he is the Senate's lion in winter, standing athwart reform.

Stevens showed his distress, in stentorian tones, at last Thursday's Commerce Committee hearing. The witness was Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- a federal agency that has been the uncomplaining beneficiary of Stevens's earmarks. But Lautenbacher now has felt Stevens's wrath.

The senator complained that President Bush's effort at some control over federal spending had discriminated against Alaska. "It looked like someone had sort of a heavy pencil in Alaska," complained Stevens. Lautenbacher's protest of "very severe budget restrictions" did not satisfy him.

Stevens filed for divorce from the NOAA after a long, happy marriage: "Admiral, you can take me off the side of being a supporter of your agency and put me down as one that is really critical for the balance of this year." In the past, Stevens would brush away budget restraint by earmarking. But he told Lautenbacher last week to "go back" to the Office of Management and Budget and "tell them [about] the current policy of not having the ability to earmark."

If that sounded like Stevens in retreat on earmarking, he is not taking a step away from lobbyists. Although lobbyists running fund-raisers for members of Congress has become common, Stevens's Feb. 27 reception at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is extraordinary. The host committee, as of last week, consisted of 44 members. All but one is a registered lobbyist. (The exception, Fred Wahl, owns a boat-building company.)

Robert Novak

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

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