Democrats Under Scrutiny As They Shape Lobbying Bill
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
House Democratic leaders yesterday discussed key elements of a long-awaited lobbying reform bill, which has been seen as a signal test of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's pledge to bring unprecedented transparency to the Democratic-led institution.
While the legislation would open congressional lobbying to greater public scrutiny, its contours hint at a behind-the-scenes battle by the leadership to retain its most sweeping new measures.
The bill will be unveiled today at a Democratic caucus meeting, where more changes will be discussed. At the meeting last night, party leaders debated the proposal's three most important provisions, which appear headed for varying fates.
Watchdog groups and freshman members who rode into Congress on promises of ethics reform see as most critical a section imposing stricter reporting guidelines on the practice of "bundling," in which lobbyists gather and deliver bundles of contribution checks to a member. In an effort to prevent opponents of that measure from killing the entire bill, Democrats may address bundling in a separate bill or amendment, to be introduced in tandem with the main legislation.
The House bill is likely to drop a second key provision, requiring that lobbyists who orchestrate grass-roots letter-writing and telephoning campaigns disclose their involvement.
The third new element -- a "revolving door" measure doubling, to two years, the time members must wait after leaving Congress before lobbying former colleagues -- is expected to be included in the final bill.
Other provisions impose disclosure requirements on lobbyist-paid meetings and parties, contributions to charities, and other sponsored activities. Disclosure records would be posted online, in a searchable format.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to formally draft the bill Thursday, with a vote anticipated before the Memorial Day recess.
"I believe that the voters are going to be watching carefully to see whether we address this issue," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), sponsor of the bundling measure. "We are letting our members know that this is an important issue for the Democratic agenda. . . . We're very focused on getting this done."
Sponsors and watchdogs had hoped the House lobbying reform bill would go further than the Senate's version, passed with great fanfare in the opening days of the new Congress. Instead, it appears to closely track the Senate bill, which also did not include restrictions on grass-roots lobbying. In recent weeks, according to several people close to the talks, the Senate had been pushing the House to narrow the bundling restrictions in its version, by limiting reporting requirements to clearly defined fundraising agreements between lobbyists and members. The House bill as discussed would do that.
Passage of a weaker bill -- chiefly, one without bundling rules -- would disappoint watchdogs, who have waged a lobbying campaign of their own for the new law.
"I am sensing a fading of enthusiasm for lobbying and ethics reform, which is why we have to get this done as soon as we can," said Craig Holman of advocacy group Public Citizen. "The longer we wait, the weaker this bill seems to get." Holman said he is lining up legislators to introduce, as amendments, any major portions of the lobbying bill eliminated in this week's discussions.
Democrats' promise to end the "culture of corruption" they said developed in Washington under Republican rule helped propel the party into the majority in November elections. They quickly tightened the rules over travel, meals and gifts from lobbyists, and improved disclosure rules for earmarks -- the pet projects that lawmakers tuck into legislation.
But a task force appointed by Pelosi (D-Calif.) to look into creating an independent entity to investigate ethics charges against lawmakers has missed its May 1 deadline for issuing recommendations, amid foot-dragging by members opposed to the idea.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said the party's leadership considers ethics reform "an obligation."
"We as a party successfully talked about a culture of corruption, and one of the pledges we made was to change that," he said. To do so, he added, "you've got to change the laws, and people's attitudes."