Bundling Rules a Comin’

Posted July 25, 2008 at 5:56pm

The wait may soon be over for Federal Election Commission rules requiring campaign committees to publicly disclose which lobbyists “bundled,” or raised large amounts of money, for their campaign as part of the new lobbying and ethics law.

The FEC is set to meet today for its second public

meeting since it was reconstituted, and although the provision isn’t on the commission’s docket yet, ethics lawyers and government watchdog groups say it is only a matter of time.

The provision has laid dormant awaiting FEC action, which stalled in December after a Senate dispute left four commissioner vacancies. Based on last year’s ethics revisions, candidate committees should have publicly filed bundled contributions at least once by now.

The provision, which is one of the most significant changes in the new ethics law, requires federal candidates to report which federal lobbyists help raise more than $15,000 over a six-month period. How exactly the FEC will interpret the law is still unclear with the commission’s proposed rules in November leaving several different options open for not only the number of times campaign committees will have to file the information, but also how donations will be attributed to different lobbyists.

While Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have publicly released the names of bundlers for their presidential campaigns who have raised $50,000 or more, there is not a uniform system for releasing the information. Obama does not allow federally registered lobbyists to donate to his campaign. However, the bundling requirement would unveil many of the lobbyists who hold fundraisers throughout the year for powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill that are still cloaked in secrecy.

Many ethics lawyers and Congressional watchdogs have been pushing the commission to quickly issue a rule so information would be available on at least some of the bundling during the presidential and Congressional elections this year.

“I think there is some faint hope that maybe they can put in place some rules that might actually be for the last half of this year that would require this kind of bundling disclosure,” said Scott Thomas of Dickstein Shapiro.

“They would have to move on a very fast track and in at least some respect retroactively apply the rule,” said Thomas, who is a former FEC chairman.

Earlier this month, the Campaign Legal Center sent a letter to the commission urging it to make the two outstanding Honest Leadership and Open Government Act rulemakings — on bundling and candidate travel — its first priority.

“These are issues that jumped out to us as worth putting in writing,” said Paul Ryan, a Campaign Legal Center lawyer, who signed the letter.

The candidate travel law allows candidates running for president or Senate to pay fair market value on noncommercial air travel. The House rules largely do not allow Members to fly on noncommercial flights unless the plane is owned or leased by the candidate or their family. The FEC has proposed several alternatives for implementing the new law.

The ethics law gave the commission six months after its enactment to promulgate regulations on bundling. In November, the commission put out its proposed regulations and several outside lawyers and groups filed comments. The commission must still hold an open hearing where people can discuss the proposal before making a final rulemaking.

While the commission could start the entire process over again by drafting a new proposal, several ethics lawyers said they doubted the FEC would go that route.

“I sincerely hope they work off their proposed regulations from last year,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “They worked on it quite some time and crafted a well-developed proposal. … I would expect and hope the new commission will begin at that point and move this fairly quickly.”

Time will tell how quickly the FEC will act, but fundraisers say they are not being caught unaware.

The Bellwether Group’s Monica Notzon, who organizes fundraisers for campaigns, says she has been keeping track of which lobbyists help bring in contributions for candidates.

“What we understood about the rule is that the onus would be on us, the campaign, to really track where money is coming from,” Notzon said. “We started tracking as best we can where our checks are coming from and if they are a direct result of somebody else’s effort.”

Notzon says that, initially, lobbyists would contact them and say they weren’t interested in throwing events that would trigger the $15,000 reporting requirement.

“Since then it has sort of gone by the wayside because there is no enforcement or any actions,” Notzon said.