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Lobbyists bracing for tough new disclosure requirements from the Democrats’ ethics reform drive can breathe a little easier.
Democratic leaders appear to be backing away from a provision included in ethics proposals last year that would require lobbyists to detail their contacts with Members of Congress.
The plan was met with stiff resistance from labor and nonprofit groups, which argue that the requirement would be onerous, impossible to apply consistently and could chill contact on politically sensitive topics.
Democrats, who last year pushed the measure as key to shedding light on lobbyists’ role in the lawmaking process, are now suggesting the disclosure standard is too problematic.
“That is a provision that raised a lot of concerns with a lot of people,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). “We haven’t gotten through all of them. We’re going to take another look at it.”
House Democratic aides said that while the measure still could find its way into a reform bill the chamber is expected to take up later this month, it isn’t topping anybody’s priority list.
The new posture, in part, reflects the challenge for Democrats seeking to make good on last year’s promises, made when they were out of power and trying to rally voters with an anti-corruption message.
The then-minority party grabbed for the high ground in the debate over ethics rules by proposing bold reform measures. Now that they are in power, Democrats are trying to pursue the strongest reforms possible while ensuring the overhaul doesn’t cause unintended consequences or spur a filibuster in the Senate.
As Senators take up the bill this week, public interest groups are preparing for fights over grass-roots lobbying disclosure and reimbursement rates for lawmakers taking rides on corporate jets.
The House Democrats’ package last year — offered as an alternative to a Republican version derided as pitiful by outside watchdog groups — would have required lobbyists to file quarterly reports listing every lawmaker they contacted over that period. The information would be available to the public in a searchable online database.
Feingold went a step further. His proposal narrowed the definition of a contact only to “oral communications,” to exclude widely circulated letters and blast faxes that would have swamped lobbyists’ reports. The Senator would have required lobbyists to report not only every lawmaker and executive branch official they contacted, but also the date that contact occurred.
Feingold left the provision out of a bill he introduced Monday with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as a high-water mark for the debate. Neither is it likely to appear in a substitute bill Senate Democratic leaders are negotiating with Republicans to strengthen the base measure, tagged S.1. “There was a recognition that too much specificity would be unhelpful and not workable,” a Senate Democratic aide said of the proposal.
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that advocates for greater transparency, called the current reporting requirements “ridiculous.”
“The legislation has to provide a requirement that lobbyists provide detailed reporting — what issues they are talking about and who they are meeting with,” she said. “If somebody is a paid lobbyist, and their business is to contact Members of Congress and senior staff to talk about legislation, they know who they’re talking to and what about.”