House moves toward lobbying reform

Witnesses before a House panel were of two minds as to how effective a Republican lobbying-reform plan would be, as House committees begin today to mark up the GOP response to K Street and congressional scandals.

There was some indication that Republicans also disagreed over its content. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee, indicated he might support the addition of new disclosure rules for so-called “grassroots” lobbying groups, something ranking member Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) also encouraged.

As it relates to K Street, the GOP bill, which is to be marked up by the Judiciary and Rules committees today, stresses disclosure over access limits.

Lobbyists would have to file quarterly reports, which would be available online, instead of the current semiannual requirement. They would have to disclose past government work for seven years instead of two, and they would be required to list political contributions on disclosure reports.

The measure also seeks to put a public face on earmarks by making any specific funding requests inserted without the sponsor’s name out of order under parliamentary rules.

Ken Gross, a lobbying-ethics expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, told the Constitution Subcommittee that the GOP proposal could “turn the tide” and give Americans greater faith in their system of government.

Given the restraints of the First Amendment, which requires that citizens are able to petition their government, Gross said increasing disclosure may be the only way Congress can legally regulate the lobbying industry.

John Graham, president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives, and Bradley Smith, a senior adviser at the Center for Competitive Politics, also offered generally favorable views of the GOP bill.

Smith credited bill writers with avoiding a “panicky” response to public perceptions about congressional corruption, which he believes are misinformed.

But Chellie Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, criticized the GOP proposal for not creating an independent panel that would enforce the new and existing lobbying rules — a chief criticism of the Senate bill as well.

The House bill would direct the chamber’s Office of Inspector General to audit lobbyists’ disclosure information randomly. Otherwise, enforcement would remain within the House ethics panel, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which has been inactive for more than a year because of Republican and Democratic disagreements over its priorities and, before that, its staffing.

Pingree said the ethics committee is operating in “in a state of suspended animation.” And even when it does meet, the committee’s findings are going to be viewed as suspect, she said.

“The public perceives this as Congress protecting its own,” Pingree said.

“There is more need for enforcement,” she said.

Democrats also chided Republicans for what they referred to alternately as a “mild” and “anemic” reform bill.

Nadler said any measure that focuses on the lobbying industry would miss the mark.

“Lobbying is an extension of the campaign-finance system,” Nadler said. He said public financing of campaigns would be the best way to restore public faith in a system too heavily reliant on private campaign donations.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) indicated that the bill would be improved if Congress were to require lobbyists to report whether they receive contingency fees as part of their contracts with their clients. Some firms get the fees by securing congressional earmarks for clients.

Nadler also encouraged the bill to include new disclosure on grassroots groups that now often don’t have to report who their members are or where they get their money. Such a measure is in the Senate version of the bill. There are no new grassroots disclosure rules in the House GOP bill.

Grassroots lobbying can include phone calls, e-mails or letters from constituents to members relating to a certain measure. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) said one campaign back home mistakenly told constituents he voted for the expansion of the Medicare prescription-drug program.

Chabot said he “definitely” agrees that the public should know who is behind campaigns to drive public opinion.

“People ought to know where the calls are coming from and who is paying for the calls,” he said.

But he was less certain later in the hearing. He said he was still deciding whether he would support an amendment during the markup to add grassroots disclosure rules to the bill.

Gross said 30 states have grassroots disclosure rules. He said Congress should carefully construct the definition of what “grassroots” means and which groups would have to disclose their financial backers if it decides to add new disclosure rules.

“You don’t want to ensnare little old ladies … who are writing letters to their congressmen,” Gross later told The Hill.

He said the Senate version of the measure provides an effective definition of what groups would be required to disclose their spending.