Reforming the Reforms

Posted June 22, 2007 at 6:29pm

Five government reform groups today are sending a letter to House Members to register their strong opposition to a proposal being considered by the chamber’s ethics enforcement task force. The task force, led by Reps. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is working to reform the ethics committee process. [IMGCAP(1)]

But the groups — Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, Committee for Economic Development and Public Citizen —say the task force’s proposal does not go far enough to keep potential ethics violations from disappearing “into a black hole.”

The letter spelled out the groups’ complaints, including one about a possible new Office of Public Integrity. “While the OPI could conduct an investigation … it would not have the powers normally provided to an investigative body,” the groups wrote.

“The OPI proposal also reportedly would require an organization that wanted to file an ethics complaint to disclose the contributors to the organization above a threshold amount,” the letter added. “This is an unprecedented requirement.”

The groups said in the letter that they want the OPI to have enforcement powers over new lobbying laws, in addition to Congressional ethics rules.

“We believe that establishing an independent ethics entity to help enforce the Congressional ethics rules is critical in terms of making the system work,” said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer. “This letter goes into what our problems are with the proposal that is currently pending.”

But not all reform groups are opposed to the likely proposal, and two will be noticeably absent from today’s letter: USPIRG and Common Cause.

Common Cause’s Sarah Dufendach called the proposed changes “a big step forward.”

“It greatly enhances our ability to have accountability for the ethics committee,” she said.

Meanwhile, with time running out to meet their end-of-June target for wrapping up work on a lobbying overhaul package — and conferees not yet named — House and Senate aides insisted late last week they were not giving up.

A major sticking point remains over new bundling disclosure language. On another tricky item, slowing the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street, aides said the two chambers could simply agree to disagree. The Senate bill doubles to two years the cooling-off period for lawmakers and staff who become lobbyists, and it broadens the ban to cover backroom strategizing, while the House version did not touch the issue. A Senate aide said the new law could preserve the differences by instituting separate standards for each side of the Capitol.

Dishing Out. When it comes to the K Street fundraising scene, this week might just send a few lobbyists’ checking accounts into the red. It is, after all, the final week of the second quarter of what already has become one of most furious election cycles.

Not only are lobbyists’ inboxes filled with solicitations — an 8 a.m. breakfast on Tuesday for Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) or a Friday luncheon for the coffers of Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) — but Members themselves and their fundraisers have been burning up the phones to twist lobbyists’ arms to give.

“For whatever reason, this quarter has just been nuts,” said one GOP lobbyist, before dashing off on a plane to attend a golf fundraiser over the weekend. This week, he said, would be nonstop. “My wife is wondering the last time she saw me,” he said.

Heather Podesta, a Democratic lobbyist and frequent fundraising host, said she was planning an event tonight for Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

But, she said, “the people who are really concerned about this quarter are the [vulnerable Democratic] frontline Members and the presidential candidates.

“The frontline guys are really focused and under a lot of pressure themselves and from the DCCC to post meaningful numbers.”

Galen Reser, PepsiCo’s in-house lobbyist, said lobbyists are feeling a sense of urgency this week.

One defense industry lobbyist said that he has received calls in recent days from Members and their fundraisers, saying “‘What can you do for us before June 30?’”

Revving Up. An intra-auto-industry dispute last week over amendments to the Energy bill that dealt with fuel economy standards took a turn in favor of Nissan.

The Japanese automaker had bucked the majority of the auto industry, including Toyota, to lobby against an amendment favored by Toyota, the Detroit makers and the trade association Auto Alliance.

That amendment didn’t make it onto the bill, but a compromise amendment that Nissan representatives said they wanted made it onto the final Senate-passed version.

“It’s gotten us from the second inning to the fourth inning,” said one source close to Nissan. “We’re obviously very happy about it.”

Nissan wanted one fuel economy standard for autos made in the United States and internationally, instead of a separate standard for each.

The company also lobbied for one standard for both passenger cars and light trucks.

But, the Nissan advocate said, the company has an uphill battle as the energy legislation moves to the House where Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a Detroit ally, is chairman of the Commerce Committee. “Detroit will have a stronger hand,” this source said.

Nissan spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan, said “We’re pleased that our voices were heard.” But, she added, “there’s still a really long road ahead.”

One auto industry official that opposed Nissan’s agenda said that the company “did an impressive job” of getting language that is “to the detriment of American workers and American companies.”

This official added that Nissan has “failed in the marketplace, so this is their attempt to use the law to change where they couldn’t win in the marketplace.”

In a statement, Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Auto Alliance, said the group will continue to work toward “reasonable fuel economy standards” beginning this week with Dingell’s committee.

In Fashion. It’s that time of year again. Lobbyists, looking to polish their oft-tarnished image, are planning to donate their used duds to charities that provide clothing to the unemployed.

The American League of Lobbyists’ Capitol PurSuit clothing drive is this Wednesday in the Rayburn House Office Building foyer, and the organizers said that Armani-suit-enthusiast Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reps. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) all are expected to attend a noon press conference. ALL is also collecting clothes from Hill staffers.

Golin/Harris lobbyist Michael Fulton said his office already has collected more than 375 articles of clothing and shoes and is hoping for a repeat win among other lobbying firms.

The clothes, he said, “go to nonprofit organizations that help less fortunate people get back into society and into the workforce.” The beneficiaries might include homeless people, ex-prisoners or other people who have lost a job and are trying to find employment.

K Street Moves. The American Forest & Paper Association, which earlier this year ousted its president Juanita Duggan after six months on the job, has chosen acting CEO Donna Harman, the group’s former top lobbyist, as its permanent head, sources said. An announcement is expected this week. The group also named a new chief financial officer: Richard James, who is joining from the American Institute of Architects.

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