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Disclosure Form Makes It Hard for Lobbyists to Disclose

Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), center, and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) want to end a provision that allows representatives of foreign companies to register as domestic lobbyists.
Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), center, and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) want to end a provision that allows representatives of foreign companies to register as domestic lobbyists. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Congress passed an ethics law last year that was meant to force lobbyists to reveal more about what they do.

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Unfortunately, the law's newest disclosure form, unveiled last week, contains a few loopholes -- and some just plain holes -- that are making that task a real challenge.

Lawyers dealing with the form -- dubbed LD-203 -- say they are working overtime to field questions and complaints from lobbying groups eager to fill the thing out correctly by the July 30 deadline. But they are not sure exactly how to do so.

"Our clients want to comply. They have a lot of questions," said Benjamin L. Ginsberg of the law firm Patton Boggs. "It's going to be a busy month."

Jan W. Baran of Wiley Rein notes that the new law asks lobbyists to report any contributions they make to groups established, financed, maintained or controlled by members of Congress or their staff. Such groups include charities and schools named for sitting lawmakers. But he said there is no specific place on the form to list such expenditures.

Corporations and trade associations have to use the form to certify that they understand, and have complied with, tough new gift-giving restrictions that apply to members of Congress. But Kenneth A. Gross of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom said there is no place on the form where one person from such organizations can sign and take responsibility for the certification.

That's a potentially serious omission, given the stiffened civil and criminal penalties that now cover gift-rule violations. Who's to blame if the regulations are not followed, Gross asks?

Several lawyers also cite ambiguity in the form's instructions. For instance, it demands that lobbyists disclose payments they make in connection with events at which lawmakers and their aides are honored or recognized.

Does that mean a lobbyist has to list cab fare to a Kiwanis Club luncheon at which a congressman stops by and is introduced? Or, if a lawmaker visits a lobby group's multiday conference, must the cost of the whole meeting be reported, or just the cost of the single event?

"It's confusing and imperfect," Baran said. "But there's increased hope that the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate will fix these problems quickly, and perhaps provide some additional guidance that can be practically followed."

A spokeswoman for the secretary of the Senate said the form is easier to understand than lawyers allege. But in the meantime, the secretary's office has been answering questions that have cropped up, she said.

Loopy Loophole?

Democratic senators Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) want to close a little-noticed "loophole" that allows representatives of foreign companies to register as domestic lobbyists and not as foreign agents.


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