Lobbyists ask Congress for a mandate on ethics

An association of Washington lobbyists is asking Congress to give teeth to a provision from a 2007 reform law that would make ethics training mandatory for lobbyists.

Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill asking lawmakers to grant statutory power to a non-binding resolution in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. Section 214 of that law says it is the sense of Congress that lobbyists should create “multiple self-regulatory organizations” to help develop fee standards, ethics training and educational materials for the public on how to hire a lobbyist, among other things.

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Marlowe said his group wants Congress to sign off on the ethics-training part of the law.

“We are looking to see if there’s a willingness and an interest to implement statutory language to require ethics and compliance training for lobbyists every Congress,” said Marlowe, also the president of lobby firm Marlowe & Co. “We want to be sure that everybody knows the law, knows how to comply with the law and is instituting best practices.”

Marlowe said he has met with staff for the House Administration Committee, the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee about the provision. In addition, the ALL president is setting up meetings with the House Ethics Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The lobbyist group is also seeking oversight hearings from Congress on the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). Marlowe and others have lobbied for lowering the threshold that requires a person to register as a lobbyist.

“We like them to hear from those that there are problems that need to be corrected,” Marlowe said. “It’s a win-win for them and for us in the profession to close the loopholes.”

People who spend 20 percent or more of their time on lobbying and contact at least two government officials are required to register under the LDA. Advocates for lobbying reform say many avoid registering by simply staying under the threshold, even though they might be trying to influence the policymaking process.

Since it’s unlikely Congress would move on a comprehensive LDA reform bill, proponents for changes are trying to break off smaller proposals for lawmakers to chew on this session.

Marlowe said he is not pushing for the full range of reform plans that ALL released in April. Instead, the lobbyist group is focusing on just one of its recommendations, ethics training.

“I think it can be accomplished this session,” Marlowe said.  

Others are considering a narrower approach to reforming lobbying law.

The Sunlight Foundation is supporting the Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act, introduced in the House last June by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). But Lisa Rosenberg, a lobbyist for the watchdog group, said it would consider a more limited bill.  

“We are open to taking smaller bites of the apple when it comes to lobbying disclosure,” Rosenberg said.

One of those bites would be lowering the 20 percent threshold for LDA registration.

“There seems to be more consensus that folks like Newt Gingrich and Tom Daschle should be registered to lobby,” Rosenberg said.

“More disclosure would be good, too,” said Tom Susman, director of governmental affairs office for the American Bar Association (ABA). In August, the ABA released its own set of recommendations, which included lowering the 20 percent threshold.

Susman said he too has been meeting with staff of relevant congressional committees.

The groups want to find a consensus piece of legislation they all could support, but differences remain. For example, ABA is more aggressive on campaign finance, supporting barring lobbyists from fundraising for lawmakers they lobby.

“That’s still a righteous position,” Susman said. “Everyone from the president to Jack Abramoff has embraced that position.”

Advocates for reform plan to build support for changes to the LDA in this Congress so the next one can take action. Rosenberg said they were “planting the seeds” for progress after the election.

“I don’t expect any serious effort to change any law in the next six months, but if we get teed up for discussion, debate and analysis, there will be opportunities,” Susman said. “My hope is that it doesn’t take another scandal.”