K Street feels it's being unfairly targeted by bill disclosing lobbying violators

K Street is blaming the politics of the 2010 midterm elections for a new bill that would toughen lobbying law enforcement.

The House unanimously passed legislation last week that would disclose suspected violators of the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) for the first time to the public. The bill would also set up a Justice Department taskforce to investigate those cases, likely upping the law’s lax enforcement.

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It’s unclear if the legislation will be approved by the Senate and reach President Obama’s desk, but the House vote sends a tough message to K Street that lawmakers are interested in being seen as cracking down on lobbyists.

Lobbyists told The Hill they had no issue with more enforcement of the law but bristled at the bill’s suggestion their profession is inherently corrupt.

Tony Podesta, founder of the Podesta Group, said he thinks all lobbyists should follow the law and his firm makes sure lobbying reports are filed on time.

“I hardly think it is one of the top law enforcement priorities. But it is an election year. You have to expect something like this to happen,” Podesta said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio), is a freshman who faces a tough race in November. Her seat is labeled as a toss-up in the latest ratings of House races by the Cook Political Report.

“Rep. Kilroy championed this bill because of her deep desire to strengthen oversight on lobbying activities. She is hopeful that the Senate will take it up, but if not, she will push for this when she returns to Congress in 2012, again in 2014 and each subsequent Congress until she gets the job done,” said Brad Bauman, her communications director
 
Some on K Street complained that the floor debate on Wednesday “looked like a campaign commercial” for Kilroy. That populism against lobbyists — an easy target for lawmakers at times — often rubs them the wrong way.

“The rhetoric is BS,” said a lobbyist. “Every time the president talks about it, we get a client.”

Others cited the bill’s quick progress from introduction to passage as reason for worry. Kilroy introduced the bill less than two weeks ago, and it made it to the House floor with no committee hearing or markup, taking some on K Street by surprise.

“It’s very concerning that this bill came out of nowhere in a way that wasn’t transparent. Because there was no hearing or even markup, the bill that was voted on bears no resemblance to the bill that was put on the calendar,” said Howard Marlowe, president of Marlowe & Company.

The bill was actually weakened in favor of K Street. A provision that would have charged lobby firms an annual fee of $50 to file forms and assess a $500 penalty against late filers was removed.

On the floor Wednesday, Kilroy said she removed the fee provision because she was “informed by the Clerk of the House that they could not administer such a fee.”

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for watchdog group Public Citizen, said such a fee provision would have raised constitutional problems since it could favor big lobby firms over smaller boutique shops.

But even in its current form, the bill is “a desperately needed measure to compel enforcement of the lobbying laws,” Holman said. “The legislation would prevent DOJ from ignoring LDA violations.”

Holman cited statistics where of the more than 8,000 potential LDA violations that have been referred to Justice by the Senate Secretary and the House Clerk, only three cases resulted in any enforcement actions by the department.

Some lobbyists agree the bill is necessary and would force some to file forms again. Many have terminated their registrations to avoid tough new measures against lobbyists authored by the Obama administration.  

“I am for it because some of these guys are making a mockery of the system. You have half of my colleagues deregistering right now. You have got to add some teeth to the system,” said a lobbyist.

Podesta thought the bill would be tougher considering the political climate. He was surprised lawmakers took out the fee provision — or as he joked, “the death penalty.”

“At least no one has thought of getting us to file daily lobbying reports,” Podesta said.