A broadly drawn provision aimed at the practice sparked vigorous opposition from outside groups across the ideological spectrum when the Senate took it up last month, and that chamber voted to scrap it from a package of ethics changes.
But Congressional watchdog groups have made the change a top priority, putting pressure on House Democrats to address it as they draft a bill overhauling lobbying laws.
Now, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and his staff are working to narrow the scope of the provision in hopes of winning the support of groups that helped bury it in the Senate.
“Having disclosure of these efforts is an important provision that I hope will be in the final lobbying bill,” Meehan said in a statement.
“The final product will be significantly narrower than the Senate language, and I hope a lot of groups will see the difference and support it.”
As opposed to the Senate measure, the Meehan version would not require organizations that hire firms to help stimulate grass-roots activity to disclose those efforts. Instead, the measure focuses on the firms themselves.
Under the Senate proposal, those firms would have had to register with Congress if they earned more than $25,000 a quarter for trying to stir the public to lobby lawmakers. The Meehan version hikes that trigger to $100,000. And it only would require firms to name an individual client, and make a good-faith estimate of what that client is paying, if it forks over more than $50,000 over the three-month reporting period.
Sources close to the process stress that the language is fluid, as aides and reformers try to build support for the plan among membership organizations that carry significant weight with lawmakers. “It’s tough, and we’re cognizant of that,” one House Democratic aide said. “The Senate proposal had an easy death, and that was a clear sign.”
Indeed, a loose coalition of outside groups, most of them socially conservative, raised concerns that the Senate measure could end up curbing First Amendment rights and saddling shoestring interest groups with burdensome reporting requirements or stiff penalties. By a vote of 55-43, Senators agreed to strike it.
Groups lined up on both sides of the issue are starting to focus on it as House lawmakers wade back into a debate over ethics and lobbying reform. Democratic leaders first tackled the issue in the opening days of the 110th Congress, pushing through a sweeping slate of rules changes aimed at restricting behavior by lawmakers and aides.
They are now left with the task of following up with a bill to restrict lobbyists. The Senate addressed both at once, approving a package of rules and statutory changes in late January. House Democrats are mulling how to match that bill’s provisions requiring lobbyists to disclose political checks they bundle for candidates and extending the cooling-off period for former lawmakers and staffers-turned-lobbyists.
The grass-roots lobbying disclosure is another headache. Aides said House Democratic leaders would like to address the topic but don’t want to force their Caucus to take a tough vote on it only to see it scotched in conference in anticipation of Senate objections.