House Unveils Lobbying Bill

Posted May 15, 2007 at 6:46pm

Rank-and-file House Democrats argued strenuously against major provisions of their leaders’ lobbying rules overhaul after getting a first look at the reform package Tuesday.

But party leaders said that whToile they are taking the concerns of the Democratic Caucus into account, they will move forward with an aggressive schedule to clear a strong bill through committee Thursday for a floor vote next week.

“Everything we said would be in the bill is in the bill,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “This is our position: We said, ‘If you elect us, this is what we’re going to do,’ and we’re doing it.”

With the Memorial Day recess looming, House Democrats face challenges on the same three issues that have stymied progress on the proposal all year: expanding the scope of a cooling-off period for lobbyists fresh off jobs on Capitol Hill, disclosure of “Astroturf” lobbying campaigns, and making public the campaign checks lobbyists bundle for candidates.

The bundling measure has emerged in recent weeks as the most contentious of the three, and it dominated the debate Tuesday. After kicking staffers out so Members could speak more freely, Democratic lawmakers spent more than an hour behind closed doors in the Capitol basement, engaging in what several participants described as a frank and sometimes heated discussion about the reform proposals.

Several in attendance said some lawmakers lodged strong objections to matching a requirement in the Senate-passed reform bill that lobbyists offer on a quarterly basis their best guess of how much campaign money they have arranged, or bundled, for each federal candidate, even if through informal efforts.

“I think what the Senate has done sweeps too broadly and would prove too hard to administer,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who said his concern is shared by several of his colleagues.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) added that many Members worried the disclosure could put them in a bad light, especially if lobbyists reported inaccurate numbers. Nevertheless, like many members of the freshman class, Cohen said he supported the proposal.

Reform groups, too, have locked in on the measure as key to the success of the overall effort. “In the end, House Democrats are not going to be able to argue that they have provided effective lobbying reform unless they have in that legislation the bundling provision, which is the essence of necessary lobbying disclosure reform legislation,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

With the heat on from freshman Democrats elected on reform pledges, government watchdog groups and editorial pages across the country, Democratic leaders are attempting to forge a legislative strategy to attach the proposal to the broader bill.

The plan, for now, is for the House Judiciary Committee to begin its Thursday session by marking up a bundling reform bill, offered earlier this year as a stand-alone measure by Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Marty Meehan (Mass.). Then, the panel would move on to the broader package, which would not include the bundling language in its base text, according to sources close to House leadership.

The idea is to block GOP attempts to attach a watered-down bundling provision to the broader overhaul, the sources said. If Republicans on the panel offer such a change once lawmakers are revising the overhaul package, Democrats on the panel will dismiss it, pointing to the fact that the issue already was addressed with the stand-alone bill.

Then, Democrats plan to allow the bundling proposal as an amendment to the lobbying package once it is on the floor.

Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, seemed to confirm the strategy, saying his bill would be considered first “as a separate bill, then as an amendment.”

“People want to look at this as a separate issue, and we want to give people that opportunity,” he said.

Hoyer acknowledged Tuesday that the bundling provision continues to block progress on the lobbying bill, but he was confident the bill would be on the House floor next week.

“It’s a very complicated proposition … it’s not a simple thing to figure out how you do it and we’ve been grappling with it,” Hoyer said, refuting criticisms that the Democrats have slow-walked a major piece of legislation touted on the campaign trail.

Later, Hoyer noted that the bundling disclosure provision was not included in a reform measure, titled the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, that Democrats rallied behind last year as an alternative to weaker Republican efforts.

But that bill called for an independent ethics enforcement body and a grass-roots lobbying disclosure provision — both provisions likely to be left out of the overhaul package.

On an independent office to replace the ethics committee, Hoyer indicated a better solution would be to find a way to make the current system more effective. “I think we need to do that, and we’re working to that end,” he said.

The grass-roots lobbying disclosure is expected to be addressed in the committee markup this week. Meehan, who has crafted a far narrower version of a provision on the issue that was struck from the Senate reform bill, likely will offer it as an amendment. But a coalition of outside groups, including the National Right to Life Committee, the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union still contend the Meehan language goes too far and are mobilizing to sink it.

The Judiciary panel also is likely to consider expanding the scope of a revolving-door provision to bar backroom strategizing, in addition to direct lobbying contacts, during a two-year cooling-off period for former lawmakers and senior staff. But that provision is also controversial. Many lawmakers believe such a move would effectively eliminate their chances of finding work as a lobbyist after leaving Capitol Hill.

Susan Davis contributed to this report.