Lobby Package Lags

Supporters Say Time Remains, but Calendar Is Crowded

Posted March 13, 2007 at 6:37pm

The deafening noise in the House surrounding the Iraq supplemental and the president’s 2008 budget has drowned out talk of progress on a lobbying reform bill.

House Democratic leaders opened the year with a much-touted reform drive they hoped to wrap up by late February or early March. But after passing sweeping new ethics rules in the opening days of the 110th Congress, and after the Senate approved its own package, House leaders have put aside work on the measure to focus on more politically pressing business.

Now, with a bill still in the drafting stages, it is unclear whether House Democrats will manage to start marking up the proposal before breaking for the Easter recess.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose office has been driving the ethics reform process from the start, alluded to the issue in a Tuesday briefing, telling reporters, “In the coming weeks we will also pass sweeping lobbying reform to break the link between lobbyists and legislation.” She did not offer a new time frame for completing work on the reform package.

For the time being, outside reform groups tracking the process said they are not ringing any alarm bells. Several advocates said they remain in close contact with House Democratic aides, adding they trust assurances from the Speaker’s office that Pelosi is committed to a strong bill and needs to build support for certain pieces of it.

“They have to do some talking to the Democratic Caucus and find out where they are,” said Meredith McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center. “They have to run the traps on this — and there are a lot of traps. At the moment, I’m not fretting.”

Still, reformers said they will be nervous if they see no progress before lawmakers adjourn in two weeks. “We think they need to deal with this, and the longer it drags out, the more problematic it becomes,” said Gary Kalman of U.S. PIRG.

Reform efforts last year provide a cautionary tale. Then, House Republican leaders returning from the winter break were spurred by guilty pleas from disgraced former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff to publicly promise wide-ranging ethics reform. The initial proposal was greeted warmly by Congressional watchdog groups as an important step forward.

But when GOP leaders tried to sell the plan to their rank and file, they met with stiff resistance. Members of the Republican Conference complained about bans on gifts and privately funded travel provided by lobbyists; an end to first-class ticket rates for lawmakers flying on corporate jets; and new fundraising disclosure requirements for K Streeters.

Republican leaders responded by marching back the deadline for finishing work on the bill. When the House measure finally came to a vote in early May, the controversial pieces had been stripped out. It passed, but Democrats and reform groups panned it as pitifully weak. The measure died in pre-conference negotiations with the Senate.

House Democrats already have outlawed gifts, meals and trips from lobbyists, and they have banned outright the practice of lawmakers hitching rides on corporate jets.

But the House majority now faces the challenge of finishing the job and meeting the standard set both by Senators in a package they approved overwhelmingly in February and by House Democrats themselves in a proposal they offered as an alternative last year.

Aides and others close to the process said three provisions in particular are bedeviling House Democratic leaders: a requirement lobbyists disclose campaign checks they bundle for candidates; a provision forcing consultants hired to conduct grass-roots campaigns to register and disclose their activity for the first time; and a measure strengthening the cooling-off period for lawmakers and top staffers who leave Capitol Hill for lobbying jobs.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, already has reintroduced a bill he first offered last year with Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) requiring lobbyists to list political cash they help raise for candidates.

“I understand that the Judiciary Committee is working on a number of provisions in the lobbying bill,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “I think that the quality of the bill is more important than the timing of its consideration and I look forward to working with the Committee to ensure the inclusion of the bundling notification requirement in the Lobbying Disclosure Act.”

A House Democratic aide said once introduced, the package could come to the floor quickly. Unlike the Republican bill, which was marked up by five committees last year, the Democratic proposal primarily will be handled by the House Judiciary Committee. The House Administration Committee should get a small piece of the measure, as will the House Rules panel, which is expected to waive the referral.

Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the holdup on the lobbying bill is the result of a broader problem Democrats have had managing the chamber. “Democrats have been paralyzed by their inability to unite on a supplemental spending bill, so much so that everything else has been put on hold, including committee business,” he said. “None seem to moving any major legislation whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) has been holding twice-weekly meetings of a bipartisan task force examining whether to create an independent Office of Public Integrity to oversee compliance with ethics rules, according to a source close to the effort.

The panel is due to report back to leadership by May 1.