By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 16, 2006
House Republican leaders proposed changes in lobbying laws yesterday that would include a crackdown on independent, big-money committees that heavily aided Democrats in the 2004 elections.
The proposed ethics package would increase the amount of information that lobbyists must disclose and would, at least temporarily, cut off privately financed travel for lawmakers. The bill would also force lawmakers to disclose the pet projects they are seeking for their home districts.
Two months after congressional leaders pledged wholesale reforms of government ethics and lobbying rules following the guilty plea of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the leading proposals are less extensive than the initial promises and are moving slowly toward passage. There is widespread disagreement among lawmakers about how far to go in restricting their interaction with lobbyists, and interest in lobbying changes has been overtaken by other more pressing issues, including port security.
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), recently elected House majority leader, has argued that it is far more important to increase disclosure requirements for lobbyists and lawmakers than to limit their interaction. But in a surprising development yesterday, House GOP leaders decided to try to intervene in a fast-growing sector of campaign finance that has mostly benefited Democratic candidates.
As part of the House GOP proposals, "527" organizations that operate independently of the political parties would no longer be allowed to collect unlimited sums from individuals. Democratic-leaning 527s have accepted tens of millions of dollars from such wealthy backers as investor George Soros and insurance mogul Peter B. Lewis.
Instead, the groups would be governed by federal campaign finance laws that would restrict such giving to a total of $30,000 from individuals per year. By contrast, during the 2004 election cycle, Soros gave $27 million and Lewis gave nearly $24 million to Democratic-oriented 527 groups, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan research company.
Republicans were excited at the prospect of crippling these groups. "We strongly commend these efforts as an important step towards much-needed reform," said a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
Democrats spoke out against the proposal. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) "does not personally support additional restrictions on 527 contributions," a Pelosi spokeswoman said.
In 2004, Democratic-oriented 527s raised $265 million, compared with the GOP-oriented groups' $154 million. So far in the 2006 election cycle, Republican- and Democratic-leaning 527s have raised roughly the same amount of money -- more than $36 million on each side, PoliticalMoneyLine reported.
The Senate's lobbying bill does not address 527 groups. Leaders of both parties there have shied away from including campaign finance controversies in the lobbying legislation for fear of bogging down the measure in partisan debate.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said he advocates legislation limiting contributions to 527s, but he added that any such measure should be brought to the House floor on its own. By mixing the 527 issue with the broader lobbying changes, he said, the leadership might politicize the ethics agenda and ensure that the 527 revisions never pass.
"We need some bold action," Shays said. "If we can't show some energy on this, I think you're going to see another party in control" of the House after the November elections.
The House Republican bill, which is otherwise less stringent than the Senate's, faces an elaborate set of obstacles before it can be considered by the full House. No fewer than five committees must act on various parts of the measure before it can be brought to a vote. Rank-and-file Republicans are divided over some provisions.
"There's been a lot of mincing and parsing as we go through this process," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "It's not easy."
Bowing to Republican opposition, Hastert stepped back from proposals he personally unveiled in January after Abramoff's guilty plea. Back then he recommended a ban on privately funded travel for lawmakers. The new plan would bar such travel for the rest of this year but would ask the House's ethics committee to study how to deal with it thereafter.
Earlier, Hastert had also proposed severe restrictions on gifts from lobbyists. But yesterday, GOP leaders said they intend to maintain the current gift rules, which allow lawmakers to accept gifts, including meals, worth as much as $49.99 per gift and up to $99.99 per year.
Under the House GOP plan, lobbyists would have to disclose more information about what they do and to report more often. They would file their reports four times a year rather than the current twice a year. In addition, they would have to disclose their campaign contributions and any gifts worth $10 or more to lawmakers and members of their staffs.
The House's inspector general would do spot audits of those reports under the plan. The proposal would also require that narrowly targeted appropriations called earmarks be clearly listed and that bills without such disclosures could be defeated in a procedural vote.