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The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved the first overhaul of lobbying laws in a decade, sending to the House an issue that has been looming over Congress since the beginning of the year.
Despite the bill’s 90-8 passage, several Senators, including the measure’s sponsors, acknowledged that the bill could have gone further. In fact, the final package was assailed by the Senate’s most vocal reform advocates, who called it too weak.
Voting against the bill were Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.).
McCain, who late last year introduced what became the framework for the bill, called it “very weak” in its final form. The Wednesday sentencing of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose misdeeds inspired the reform efforts, offered a stark counterpoint for some of the bill’s nay-sayers.
“Given that Mr. Abramoff just got five years in the pokey, the notion that this is the best we can do doesn’t make any sense,” said Obama, the Democratic point man on the lobbying issue.
Outside watchdog groups likewise heaped criticism on the measure. A coalition of reform groups — including Common Cause, Public Citizen and Democracy 21 — issued the Senate a report card on the performance, giving it three Fs and two Cs. The chamber’s best grade, a B, came for the bill’s new disclosure requirements for lobbyists.
“It is not a report card that any child would like to take home to their parents,” the groups said in a statement.
Bill sponsors acknowledged that it was far from perfect, but they pointed to what they called its far-reaching provisions as evidence that it would restore public confidence in the integrity of the legislative process.
“There is now a sign up in front of the Capitol that says, ‘Not for sale,’” Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said.
Action now moves to the House, where five committees with jurisdiction over parts of the bill are expected to start marking up the measure next week.
House Republicans on Wednesday signaled their intention to deal separately with a proposal to rein in donations to 527 groups. That decision heads off what could have been a major conference committee showdown. Democrats, who have more to lose from a 527 crackdown, have argued that the inclusion of such reforms would be little more than an attempt by the GOP to gain partisan advantage.
The changes will become official only upon passage by the House and the signature of the president. Provisions affecting just the House or the Senate could, in theory, be amended during a conference committee, but that is considered unlikely.
Despite the criticism of the Senate bill, Senators did act on Wednesday to adopt a number of amendments aimed at strengthening the bill. Among them was a provision to add transparency to the multimillion-dollar business of representing foreign governments in Washington, D.C. The package now calls for the Department of Justice to create a free, online database that compiles disclosure forms by lobbyists representing foreign governments.
The bill already had included several provisions to restrict and regulate interaction between Congress and K Street, and to require greater transparency from both camps.