Lobbying association responds to criticism by calling for more regulation, education

March 21, 2012

Washington lobbyists are making a strange request: more regulation of lobbying.

The main professional association for paid influencers, the American League of Lobbyists, is expected to call for tough new rules that would require more people to register as lobbyists with the House and Senate.

Under current law, lobbyists can avoid registering if less than 20 percent of their time is spent contacting lawmakers’ offices or preparing for such activity. They also don’t need to register if they make fewer than two contacts for a client in one quarter.

The lobbyist association’s proposal calls for eliminating the 20 percent threshold for lobbyists hired on contract and reducing it to 15 for a company’s in-house lobbyists, according to a draft obtained by The Washington Post. The group also favors mandatory ethics classes for lobbyists and creating a new unit at the Justice Department to bolster compliance with the law, according to the draft.

The loophole has been used by such Washington figures as Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader who went on to work for the lobbying division of law firm Alston & Bird, but without registering as a lobbyist.

The goal of the proposal is to increase transparency around lobbying and improve the public image of the business. A draft of the recommendations to the group’s board cites “serious concerns” caused by the “escalating attacks on lobbyists by elected officials” and the “public’s misperceptions” about the role of lobbyists in the legislative process.

The move also comes in response to a raft of rules and regulations introduced by the Obama administration targeting registered lobbyists, which have caused some to avoid identifying themselves as lobbyists, according to the group. Obama signed an executive order on his first full day in office saying the administration would not hire anyone who had worked as a registered lobbyist within the past two years.

“It’s a disincentive to register,” said Howard Marlowe, president of the league. “Whenever they do something in this administration, they are basically encouraging folks to not register or deregister.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said that Obama’s new rules have been effective. Among other things, they have removed lobbyists from advisory boards and tightened the gift ban for federal employees.

“This president has done more to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington than any administration in history,” Schultz said.

The effort also coincides with a new round of campaign-season denunciations of lobbying. Obama in particular has blamed lobbyists for deadlock in Washington and called in his most recent State of the Union speech for a ban on fundraising by lobbyists.

In a recent letter to Obama, the league criticized the president for relying on the looser, official definition in the administration’s new rules.

“You have attacked lobbyists as being a primary source of political dysfunction,” the letter said, “yet you have embraced those lobbyists who choose to call themselves consultants, advisors, or any other name besides a lobbyist.”

In some cases, the administration’s reliance on the official definition has drawn a fine line.

Steve Ricchetti, for example, was recently hired to serve as an adviser in the vice president’s office. Ricchetti is the founder of Ricchetti Inc, a lobbying firm that represents clients such as AT&T, drugmaker Eli Lilly and the American Hospital Association. He deregistered as a lobbyist when Obama took office, but did not step down as president of his firm until the week before entering the administration.

A White House statement said Ricchetti has done no lobbying since 2008.

The Center for Responsive Politics found 12,633 people registered to lobby in 2011, but Marlowe estimated that an additional 5,000 to 10,000 people are lobbying without being registered.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has come under fire for the $1.6 million he received from mortgage company Freddie Mac for “consulting and related services” to the company’s top lobbyist. Gingrich said he didn’t lobby and that he was hired as a historian.

Meredith McGehee, an advocate for tighter ethics rules at the Campaign Legal Center, praised the lobbyist association’s call for tighter standards. She also praised the Obama administration for its rules restricting lobbyists. But McGehee said the White House officials she met with seemed reluctant to expand those rules beyond registered lobbyists to other people representing corporate or special interests.

“They were kind of like, ‘It’s really the word lobbyist that polls best,’ ” McGehee said. “It was very clear that it was the public perception that was driving this, and that was a little disappointing.”

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