Act now on lobbying reform, watchdogs tell the House

Growing nervous over possible further delay, ethics reform groups have stepped up their pressure on the House to introduce its companion piece to the Senate’s lobbying reform bill.

As a part of a coalition supporting reform, grassroots groups such as Public Citizen and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) have asked their members to contact Congress to push for the bill.

“The reform community had not been rattling the swords earlier because we saw the leadership fighting for strong provisions,” said Gary Kalman of U.S. PIRG. “But at some point, this has to move. The delay is not helpful.”

“I have got my matches out, but I am just not quite ready to set my hair on fire,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center.

Kalman, McGehee and others have been meeting with congressional staff frequently to discuss the bill’s potential provisions. Drafts have already begun to circulate around town.

As part of this push, Public Citizen began a “funny money” drive last week. Per its members’ request, the consumer advocacy group has faxed to congressional offices fake $1,000 bills called “Lobbyist Cash” — complete with a picture of jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff in his fedora. The fax states, “The American people were promised real lobbying reform.”

By today, more than 4,000 such “funny money” bills will have been faxed to Capitol Hill, according to Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s campaign finance lobbyist.

“My concern is if we do not keep this in the limelight and keep pressure on them, some provisions may grow weaker,” said Holman. “I saw that happened last year. As time went on, the legislation became weak tea and warm spit as Congress thought the public lost interest.”

For its part, U.S. PIRG has e-mailed its members, resulting in several letters to members of Congress and newspapers, and circulated memos to editorial boards, according to Kalman.

Holman has also sent letters to more than 300 newspaper editorial boards, asking for support in lobbying reform. In addition, Public Citizen’s grassroots members have been asked to “birddog” their own members of Congress as the lawmakers returned to their districts during the break.

Legislation will be introduced soon, but chances are remote that the bill will be introduced by the end of this week, according to a House leadership aide. The bill is expected to receive a floor vote in the next few weeks.

The bill was planned for the end of March, but the issue got lost in the shuffle as debate over Iraq war spending and the U.S. attorneys scandal gathered steam.

Reform advocates hope that provisions in the bill will include a bundling clause, forcing lobbyists to disclose how much money they raise for candidates, as well as tougher revolving-door restrictions between Capitol Hill and K Street.

Furthermore, the coalition has prioritized a provision that would reveal the funding behind grassroots movements. A similar clause met firm resistance by the National Rifle Association and pro-life groups when the Senate considered the provision, and it was ultimately stripped from the Senate bill.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have also expressed reservations about the provision.

“Democrats want to regulate the public’s ability to communicate with their lawmakers, and that violates the right to free speech,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee’s ranking member.

Yet ethics watchdogs argue it is only a narrow provision that would place the burden of disclosure on lobbying firms, not citizens.

“The new House proposal only applies to lobbying firms retained by a client, and only covers paid communications campaigns by lobbying firms to influence the general public to lobby Congress,” wrote Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform group, in a letter to members of Congress. Wertheimer has also passed around editorials on the issue.

One reform that will not be attached to the package is the creation of an independent ethics commission. A task force headed by Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) will offer separate legislation instead and has scheduled a hearing this week.
“We understand that an independent ethics proposal is moving on parallel tracks with lobby reform legislation, but it is crucial that the House does not just pass a lobby reform bill and believe that its reform work is done,” said Celia Wexler, vice president of advocacy for Common Cause.

Wexler’s group is pushing hard for the outside agency and has contacted several hundred of its activists to call members of Capuano’s task force. Several freshman House members have already proposed their own version of such a commission.
“Anything short of an outside enforcement entity to assist in the enforcement of the congressional ethics rules is not going to be serious reform,” said Wertheimer.

With the tentative timeline set for the bill, reform advocates are confident in the new House leadership, but they feel the clock is ticking.

“I am convinced that the 110th Congress is going to pass something significant,” said Holman. But he added: “If it goes past mid-May and there has not been a vote on the House floor, I would think that they are waffling on meaningful reform.”