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ABA Calls for Tougher Lobbying Rules

The American Bar Association has urged Congress to require the registration of more lobbyists, compel the disclosure of lobbying activities in more detail and narrow the types of contributions federally registered lobbyists can make to lawmakers running for re-election.

There was no opposition Tuesday when the ABA’s House of Delegates approved a resolution calling for changes to the Lobbying Disclosure Act, changes that good-government groups say would be the most sweeping reforms to federal lobbying law since 2007.

The language of the proposed amendments is based on a January report from a special task force on lobbying reform.

“This resolution urges Congress to bring the Lobbying Disclosure Act into line with the sort of lobbying that occurs today,” Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter said.

Potter, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale, co-chaired the task force with Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried, Perkins Coie lawyer Rebecca H. Gordon and attorney Joseph E. Sandler of Sandler Reiff & Young.

“It is important to emphasize that these recommendations were initially proposed by a task force of lawyers, academics, lobbyists, and public interest representatives with a wide range of experiences and perspectives,” Potter said in a statement.

The ABA wants to narrow the threshold at which a lobbyist must register from 20 percent or more of the time spent on lobbying activities for clients to some “reasonable” but unspecified amount that would be “designed to avoid imposing undue financial burdens” on smaller or one-man shops. The association also proposed a two-year window during which lobbyists could not lobby Members for whom they have raised money or raise money for Members they have lobbied in the past.

“We’ve got to break that potentially corrupting nexus between money and lobbyists,” Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said. “And the ABA is actually calling for breaking that corrupting nexus, which I consider phenomenal.”

The ABA suggested that a “suitable administrative authority” should be established to enforce lobbying laws, arguing that past violations have prompted little scrutiny or action. An effective authority could be either a separate agency or simply a couple of lawyers dedicated to lobbying compliance within the Department of Justice, Holman added.

Although Holman said he expected “a great deal of pushback” against reform from Capitol Hill and those in the lobbying community, the thrust of the ABA’s proposal has already received verbal support from the American League of Lobbyists, which is poised to release its own report on possible reforms to the organization’s board.

“We both recognize that there are two significant problems,” league President Howard Marlowe said. “One is the people who are doing lobbying who are not registered and are therefore not reporting. The second is the significant influence of money in the policymaking process.”

Marlowe said there are “a lot of similarities” between the ABA’s proposal regarding the registration threshold and what the league would likely suggest to its board.

But on the campaign finance provisions, the league’s working group will likely come up with a proposal that is quite different.

The ABA knows “that they’re on the short end of the stick constitutionally when they’re doing that, and it’s not likely to pass muster,” Marlowe said.

Even so, Marlowe said, the league’s working group will develop a “clear line in the sand” to guide permissible campaign activity.

“It’s not just lobbyists who are the problem,” he added. “We’re part of a system. It’s the Members of Congress who are asking lobbyists to give.”

The league’s working group is scheduled to report its findings to the organization’s board in September.

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