Reform groups disappointed with Dems’ ethics legislation

Watchdog groups began 2007 hopeful that Democrats would pass tough ethics reforms, given that many of the party’s candidates campaigned on a message of cleaning up Washington after a spate of Republican ethical lapses.

But as the House prepares to take up a lobbying reform bill tomorrow, a number of outside groups are disappointed that the strictest measures appear likely to be left to the campaign trail.

“There is great concern as to what is going to be approved on the floor,” Craig Holman of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch said.

“It’s starting to look like the House isn’t really serious about lobbying reform.”

The reform package is missing three main components, reformers say: a longer cooling-off period between the transition from lawmaker to lobbyist, new disclosure of grassroots “Astroturf” campaigns, and more information on how much money a lobbyist “bundles” for candidates.

None of those three issues survived as part of the main bill.

A measure backed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that would require lobbyists to report the campaign contributions they collect or arrange, or “bundle,” also would get a floor vote under a deal struck during the Judiciary Committee markup.
But the other end of the bargain left out  the provision to lengthen the period between when a member can make policy and when he or she can lobby. Reformers had wanted a two-year revolving-door ban.

“We were hoping for something much stronger,” a spokeswoman for Common Cause, Mary Boyle, said.

Lobbyists, it’s fair to say, do not share the watchdogs’ concerns.

But they, too, remain lukewarm at best about the bill as is. The measures would impose new disclosure rules on their activities, requiring, for example, quarterly rather than semi-annually filing of lobbying revenue reports and stiffer penalties for violations of the law.

The president of the American League of Lobbyists, Brian Pallasch, said quarterly reports could be a particular burden for small lobbying shops that do not have the administration departments that large firms do.

Lobbyists have expressed frustration with a new House electronic filing system, although some of the early kinks have apparently been worked out.

Still, Pallasch said, “Some of our members would have less heartburn if they knew the electronic system would be easier to use.”

The League has pressed for all lobbyists being required to register. Current exceptions are made for in-house lobbyists who work for universities, local governments and Indian tribes.

“The bill still has a significant amount of loopholes in it,” Pallasch said.

Though they have not gotten everything they wanted, reformers still see a number of provisions they support in the House bill.

Holman, for example, supports the more frequent reporting requirements, explicit language outlawing K Street Project-like efforts to pressure outside groups to hire particular members and staffers, new disclosure rules for coalitions, and prohibitions on spouses lobbying the offices of their husbands or wives.

Boyle also noted new requirements that lawmakers and top staff disclose when they are interviewing for private-sector jobs, as well as new disclosure rules for travel.

Democratic lobbyists said the party has already lived up to campaign pledges with the new travel and gift rules passed earlier this year.

But especially disheartening to watchdog groups was a moment during the House Judiciary Committee’s markup last week when members rejected an amendment to prohibit lobbyists from throwing a party for an individual member of Congress at the upcoming national party conventions, Boyle said.

“It symbolizes a lack of appetite” for reform, she said.

After the House passes its reform bill, the measure will have to be reconciled with the Senate-passed measure. The Senate’s bill includes a two-year revolving-door ban. It would also ban a lawmaker’s immediate family, including spouses, children and in-laws, from lobbying the member’s office.