The mid-2000s might call, wanting their lobbying bill back.
Though it sounds like a measure that could easily have been proposed during the height of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal more than a dozen years ago, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel will consider a bipartisan bill Wednesday that would require lobbyists to disclose certain convictions, including those for bribery.
Lobbyists are split over the measure, but few believe the proposal — sponsored by Louisiana Republican John Kennedy and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III — would curtail any real or perceived corruption on K Street.
“It seems like a wasted exercise,” said Paul Miller, who ran the American League of Lobbyists at the height of Abramoff’s scandal and is now president of the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics.
Miller added that he was frustrated that his group has proposed what he called “real reforms,” such as overhauling the criteria for who needs to register under the 1995 lobbying disclosure law, to no avail on Capitol Hill. The Kennedy-Manchin bill, he said, “doesn’t close any loopholes.”
The bill would not seek to explicitly limit the lobbying work of convicts, but it would require federally registered lobbyists to note if they had been convicted in federal or state court of crimes involving bribery, extortion, embezzlement, kickbacks, tax evasion, fraud, a conflict of interest, making a false statement, perjury or money laundering.
It would apply only to lobbyists registering under the 1995 law and not those registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the disclosure regime for foreign lobbying that has existed since 1938.
“We all, as Americans, have a right to petition our government, and professional, paid lobbyists have the right on behalf of a client to lobby the government as well,” Kennedy said during a recent MSNBC interview.
Kennedy and Manchin have said the Abramoff scandal inspired their bill, which has the acronym of JACK. Abramoff has not registered to lobby under the 1995 law since his release from prison in 2010, but retroactively filed as a foreign agent last year. Other high-profile ex-lobbyists, such as Paul Manafort, have recently been indicted as part of the special counsel probe into foreign interference in the 2016 elections.
“If we’ve learned anything from the Russia investigation, we’ve learned that you’ve got to be careful who you meet with,” Kennedy added in the MSNBC appearance. “Now I tell my staff all the time, look, I know we’re all in a rush here, but I want to know who I’m meeting with. … That’s all this bill says, is if you care to look you’ll be able to find out if somebody who wants to talk to you professionally on behalf of a client has been convicted of bribing a congressman.”
Lobbyists say that such convictions are rare and typically generate plenty of publicity and notoriety, as is the case with Abramoff, making the additional registration step unnecessary.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the liberal group Public Citizen and a proponent of government transparency, called the effort a “fairly straightforward transparency bill that proposes one additional disclosure” for lobbyists.
“It does not offer a dramatic change in the lobby disclosure laws, and it plays on the popular perception that many lobbyists are corrupt, so it could well get some legs in Congress,” Holman said. “The markup will show if the measure enjoys some broad support.”
The committee on Wednesday also will vote on the nomination of Emory Rounds to head the Office of Government Ethics, an increasingly high-profile job given the numerous ethics matters sparked by President Donald Trump and members of his administration.
Rounds’ nomination has been uncontroversial. “The committee staff spoke to Mr. Rounds’ colleagues in the ethics community at OGE, who spoke exceptionally highly of his experience as an ethics lawyer and his commitment to the mission of the Office of Government Ethics,” said GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma during Rounds’ May 23 confirmation hearing. “The committee is confident that Mr. Rounds is qualified to be the director of the Office of Government Ethics.”
As for the lobbying measure, even if the committee approves it Wednesday, that’s no guarantee it will ever become law.
Another lobbying measure aimed at overhauling the foreign lobbying disclosure system sailed out of the House Judiciary panel in January, only to remain stalled. Similar foreign lobbying bills have also seen little action.
Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio is preparing a foreign lobbying and campaign finance measure that may be introduced as soon as Wednesday.
Chris DeLacy, who leads the political law practice at Holland & Knight, said the new lobbying bill to disclose convictions seemed “addressed to one person,” Jack Abramoff.
“I don’t see anything in there that’s particularly problematic for most lobbyists,” DeLacy said. “If it did weed out a few bad actors, it might not be a terrible thing.”