02/17/2006 07:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

K Street Grief

The exploding Abramoff scandal and its exposure of the hand-in-glove relationship between Congress and K Street has plunged both sides of the legislative sausage factory into the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

After trying their best to deal with the situation using Denial and Anger, most members of the D.C. political family are now engaged in a full-tilt Bargaining frenzy.

The bargain that many in the political class are trying to strike is this: Change the system just enough to satisfy the public's outcry for reform, but not so much that it crimps the mutually beneficial relationship between lobbyists and Capitol Hill.

It won't be easy.

Take the issue of transparency. Obviously additional reporting from lobbyists and a system that makes it easier for the general public to access what's reported must be a part of any meaningful reform.

But K Street is already balking at even some of the more modest reporting proposals circulating on Capitol Hill. Last month at a Senate hearing, National Association of Manufacturers' President John Engler, the former Michigan governor, asked: "Just how do we continue to function and how much paperwork and burden gets imposed to the point where it's a tipping point and you say it's not worth it?"

It's a good question, as well as an overt bit of bargaining.

As the head of a labor organization, I happen to know a few things about paperwork. Every year, in accordance with the Labor-Management Reporting Disclosure Act of 1959, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters must file a report called the LM-2, as does every other international and local union.

The LM-2 covers all revenue, expenditures, debts and investments for the organization. To give you some idea of the thoroughness of the LM-2 requirements, the salary of every officer and employee of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters appears on our report, along with the expenses incurred by every one of those individuals, including travel, meals, etc.

And the Department of Labor has made sure that all LM-2 forms can be easily accessed by the general public. In 2004, the Teamsters' LM-2 was 179 pages long.

Public disclosure for lobbyists, on the other hand, is neither as exhaustive nor as accessible. Private lobbyists - as opposed to those who are direct employees of an organization - need only to fill out a short form for each client. They must report the income they receive from each client, but only within the "nearest $20,000." And, unlike organizations, private lobbyists aren't required to report their expenses at all.

In February of 2002, Jack Abramoff filed his year-end report for his dealings with the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana in 2001. He reported that the Coushatta paid him $1.76 million - give or take $20,000 - for his services.

The report was eight pages long.

Which brings us back to John Engler's question: How much paperwork is too much? It seems to me that somewhere between eight and 179 pages would be reasonable. I'd also suggest that, just as unions do in the LM-2, lobbying firms should be required to report their expenses. The reason is simple: That's where Abramoff committed most of his mischief -- think cigars, steaks and skyboxes.

And Jack Abramoff is not alone. Many lobbyists operate in the unreported expenses column and countless millions of dollars churn there. Requiring lobbyists to report their expenses is by no means a magic bullet, but any reform proposal that doesn't include such a provision gives an abetting nod to the continuation of K Street's black market.

I'm not one of those people who think that all lobbyists are slimy and all politicians are on the take. But the largesse of Jack Abramoff was a story inside the Beltway long before it hit the front page of the New York Times. This isn't just about tinkering with the rules; it's about transforming a culture.

According to "On Death and Dying," the 1969 book by Elizabeth Kubler Ross that first outlined the now-famous stages of grief, the question is not the order but the length of time it takes to move from one to the next. You can't skip a stage, but you can get stuck in one.

Judging by many of the lobbying reform proposals being floated on Capitol Hill, along with K Street's attempt to sink them, DC's political class will remain mired in Bargaining for some time. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it takes another election - along with some ballot box induced Depression - to finally get Congress to face the enormity of the problem, deal with it by passing meaningful reform, and finally reach Acceptance.