Real Lobbying Reform

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

DON'T HOLD your breath for this to turn up in the final version of lobbying reform, but the House Judiciary Committee approved an amendment last week that would help shed light on the symbiotic relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers. Offered by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the provision would require lobbyists to report not just the campaign contributions they gave directly to lawmakers but also the campaign checks they solicit for or deliver to lawmakers -- in other words, a measure of the real influence they wield. Astonishingly, this proposal passed the Judiciary Committee by a vote of 28 to 4 -- along with the underlying bill, a proposal that started out weak and was watered down from there.

We're almost reluctant to flag this provision for fear that it will be shot down all the more quickly, but in fact no other disclosure requirement would be more useful in explaining the way Washington does business than this one. That may help explain why, until now, it hasn't been a part of any of the major proposals. The central role that lobbyists play in hunting, gathering and delivering campaign cash -- rather than the checks they write directly -- is the true source of their power. But while both sides in the transaction are well aware of how much Lobbyist X has raised for Representative Y, the media and the public are -- at least based on the required disclosures -- in the dark.

Presidential candidates -- first George W. Bush and after that Sen. John F. Kerry and other Democrats -- have shown that it's feasible to provide information about the amounts bundlers have raised for them; their voluntary disclosure has added significantly to public understanding. If lawmakers are serious about effective reform, making certain the Van Hollen amendment survives would be a good way to demonstrate their commitment.


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