House Tries to Unlock Lobby Reform

Posted April 17, 2007 at 6:05pm

The House returned to work this week with the most contentious decisions about a lobbying reform package still up in the air.

Progress on the bill has stalled since early this year, when House Democrats pushed through the first round of reforms in sweeping rules changes. Senators quickly leaped ahead, approving a measure that overhauled Senate rules as well as lobbying laws.

Since then, House Democratic leaders have rolled back deadlines for the bill as they struggled to resolve three major issues: disclosing checks lobbyists bundle for candidates; disclosing “Astroturf” lobbying campaigns; and extending the cooling-off period for former lawmakers and staffers who take lobbying jobs.

All three remain subjects of heated debate as House lawmakers try to finally wrap up work on the bill, aides and advocates close to the discussions said.

A proposed bundling requirement is pitting Congressional watchdog groups — who claim political capital with Democrats who swept back into power on reform promises — against trial lawyers, a key source of campaign cash for the party.

The proposal would require lobbyists to file quarterly reports disclosing not only their own contributions and the amounts raised at fundraising events they hosted, but also the total amount of checks they solicit, gather, and then hand over to campaigns. The Senate bill included the condition, and Democratic Reps. Marty Meehan (Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) introduced the plan in the House as a stand-alone bill.

But the measure met immediate resistance, both from within the Democratic Caucus and from the trial lawyer’s lobby, now called the American Association for Justice.

Reform advocates said they tried to use the lull in the debate to build support for a more narrowly focused proposal. Craig Holman of Public Citizen said his group and others are pushing for the bill to include “a very explicit, brightline test” that would only require disclosure of checks bundled with a “physical tracking mechanism” — such as a tracking code in a database, or a colored envelope, corresponding to a particular lobbyist.

“I’m quite optimistic about it,” he said.

Others are less sure. One person close to the debate said early draft language of the provision looked weak. And an aide working on the issue said even the narrowed scope of the provision presented problematic scenarios. “It’s like peeling an onion,” the aide said. “We’re trying to make sure this is captured appropriately but that it also works in reality.”

A spokesman for the trial lawyer’s group did not return a call for comment.

Another issue sparking a showdown between important allies of the new majority is a proposed requirement that firms hired to gin up public contact with lawmakers register and, in some cases, report the sums they collect.

A coalition of nonprofit groups — many of them socially conservative but also including the American Civil Liberties Union — pressured Senators to drop a more broadly drawn version of the measure from their bill. But reform advocates have made the disclosure requirement a top priority and revived debate over it in the House.

Meehan’s office in February crafted a more targeted approach. Instead of focusing on the grass-roots groups themselves, it would require only the firms they hire to register, and only if they earned more than $100,000 a quarter for their work — quadruple the trigger in the Senate bill.

The nonprofit groups, organized under the banner of the Free Speech Coalition Inc., argue that the new language does not fix the problem. The provision, they say, still will chill constituent contact with Members of Congress and impose undue burdens on citizen advocates operating on limited budgets.

“When you look at how the terms are being defined, it amounts to pretty much the same thing,” said Douglas Johnson, national legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

Backers of the provision have been trying to peel off members of the opposing coalition, operating under the assumption the burden is on them to prove to Democratic leaders adding the measure won’t invite a difficult vote on the overall package or a problematic conference process. But they have had limited success finding new support. “We’re in a holding pattern,” one aide close the process said, adding it was still unclear whether the provision would make it into the bill.

Congressional watchdog groups also are angling to broaden the revolving-door provision in the overhaul package. They expect the measure to match what the Senate approved, doubling the current one-year cooling-off period for lobbyists coming off the Hill. Senators decided against expanding the scope of that provision to ban not just direct lobbying contacts during that period, but any lobbying activities at all — including back-room strategizing.

“They will expand the revolving door, but probably not as much as we would have liked,” said Gary Kalman of U.S. PIRG.

Aides and outside groups expect Democratic leaders to unveil the package as soon as next week. Then, they said, it should move directly to a Judiciary Committee markup and on to the floor. Drew Hammill, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said the bill should be on the floor by late April or early May.