Proposals Call For Disclosure of Ties to Lobbyists
Monday, March 27, 2006
In October 2001, executives from a small start-up with a promising technology approached their congressman, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), for help getting Pentagon notice. Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was intrigued, but he said Logical Images Inc. needed professional help. He recommended a few lobbying firms, including Martin Fisher Thompson and Associates.
Within weeks the firm was hired, and this year the lobbying bore fruit: Logical Images secured $1.5 million in the 2006 defense spending bill to help the Army buy the company's computer-aided medical diagnostic system. The transaction bore fruit for Reynolds, too. Four months after his referral, Martin Fisher's money started flowing -- $6,000 to Reynolds and the NRCC.
These mutually beneficial transactions are legal under House ethics rules. As long as there is no explicit quid pro quo, lawmakers can channel clients to lobbyists, who help secure home-district pet projects, or "earmarks," and in turn, those lobbyists can send part of their fees back in the form of campaign contributions. But in the wake of the corruption scandals of former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, congressional reformers want to shine a light on dealings that have even a whiff of impropriety.
"Anyone receiving federal funding should have to disclose what their lobbying expenses are," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), a co-sponsor of the toughest proposed crackdown on earmarking. "I understand people hire lobbyists. Lobbyists can be helpful in clarifying the complexities in legislation. But we should not hesitate from disclosing those kinds of contacts."
Proposals pending before the House and Senate would force lawmakers to reveal their contacts with lobbyists and disclose their involvement in winning federal spending provisions or earmarks for constituents or special interests. If such disclosures become mandatory, some in Congress hope past practices will shrivel in the light of day. If not, they hope to win passage of provisions that would allow improperly secured earmarks to be struck from bills on the House or Senate floor. The Senate will take up earmark-reform proposals as early as today, when it turns its attention to a broad package of lobbying and ethics rule changes.
"As the amount of earmarking increases, the amount contributed to campaigns increases. The lawmaker is getting a cut of the money he helped generate," said Scott Lilly, a former chief Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Lawmakers say they have done nothing wrong, legally or ethically. L.D. Platt, a spokesman for Reynolds, called it "absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous" to suggest lobbyist campaign contributions stemmed from the congressman's referrals. "Last time I checked, it's legal for lobbyists to give money to members of Congress," he said.
Home-district pet projects and other earmarks were once the intimate domain of lawmakers and their constituents, so much so that in 1989, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) zeroed out funding for a West Virginia University building project when he learned the school had hired a lobbyist to secure the money. But an analysis by The Washington Post and the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense found numerous links among earmarks, the lawmakers who championed them and the lobbyists who pushed them. Taxpayers for Common Sense found dozens of such links on this year's defense bill alone.
Lobbyists muscled their way into the process as pork-barrel earmarking was exploding, promising to make sure their clients' requests rose to the top of the pile. The Congressional Research Service counted 3,023 earmarks worth $19.5 billion in 1996 spending bills. By this year, the number had climbed to 12,852, valued at $64 billion. The number of clients registered with Congress on budget and appropriations matters has more than doubled since 1998, from 1,665 to 3,759 in 2004, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Lobbyists play such a central role in the appropriations process that many constituents believe they have no choice but to retain one if they hope to obtain funding for their project or organization.
"If we could have done it through Tom Reynolds alone, we would have," said Cynthia Fay, Logical Images' spokeswoman. But, she added, "a congressman trusts a lobbyist. He knows him personally. [The lobbyist] serves as a conduit."
Last year, Missouri-based Students in Free Enterprise hired Gregg Hartley, a former chief of staff to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), to help diversify its funding base, said Michelle West, the group's spokeswoman. Students in Free Enterprise paid Hartley $80,000 for the first six months of the year, according to lobbying records, and quickly secured $750,000 to expand its Springfield headquarters, and another $250,000 through the State Department to continue an international student exchange program.