Be wary of the old adage

“One should never watch sausage or laws being made!” That old adage has been exceptionally true with the current “lobby reform” package. What was the name of the bill again? Ah, that’s right, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. Sounds nice — but let’s take a closer look.

How was this bill constructed? Surprisingly, behind closed doors and without a hearing or input from the industry it serves to regulate. In most cases, before altering how an entire industry does business, in-depth hearings are held and industry experts are summoned for their insight and knowledge. The process strengthens the outcome of our legislative process.

In the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, however, the national association that represents the lobbyists was never asked for advice. In fact, lobbying experts were not even invited to have a seat at the table! In any other sector, the national association, stakeholders and key players are asked for input to ensure the bill is solid, that the legislation is valid and resolves the issue at hand. Instead people who have never been lobbyists drafted legislation that ultimately became a flawed bill. We talk about an “open and transparent government,” but this bill’s construction represents the opposite of
that. Sunshine seldom reaches behind closed doors.

While it is commendable for members of Congress to attempt to fix what they consider to be a problem, I believe they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Real reform is never done to satisfy a campaign pledge or create a headline. It is done to fix a loophole or right a wrong. If we are trying to avoid the next Jack Abramoff, we need to look no further than the current system that caught him! The one thing that Congress will never be able to legislate is a person’s moral fiber. Raising the fine from $50,000 to $100,000 would not have stopped the Abramoffs of the world, and to think that is the case is naïve.
The bottom line is that people determined to participate in criminal activities will do so — regardless of the fine.

I have the greatest respect for Congress and have many friends in that fine institution, but I must say they rushed into a
poor decision when putting this specific lobby reform package forward.

For example, within an hour of markup, some of the main tenets had been stripped, and others, which never should have been in there in the first place, were removed. Two particular items that were stripped struck me: the bundling component and the two-year revolving door. Some would argue that Federal Election Commission laws should be solely responsible for bundling. Regardless of whether you are for or against the two-year revolving door policy, the speed with which that provision was removed demonstrates to me that lobbying as a profession is not so bad after all if members and staff want to enter the profession.

Beyond the Beltway, the current perception of the average American is that members are being bought by special interests, and that is why there is a rush to do “something.” The answer to sagging approval ratings for Congress and President Bush is not passage of a lobby reform package that claims transparency and open government; basically making lobbyists, not elected officials, file more paperwork. The answer will not be in raising a fine that will never affect 99.9 percent of lobbyists, who follow strong ethical and moral compasses throughout their careers. And it certainly won’t be trying to fix a supposed LDA deficiency when there has not been sufficient evidence that it is broken.

Inside the Beltway, I heard one legislator this week say, “If we want to talk about real reform, we need to talk about campaign funding.” Amen. Campaign finance to me is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It makes no sense to say that a $30 lunch is prohibited but a $2,000 contribution is acceptable. By taking away the de minimus meals you have automatically separated the haves from the have-nots. Organizations that don’t have political action committees are put at a serious disadvantage and groups that are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations have just lost a tool for relationship development. That rule change may be fine for corporations and large associations, but now that piece of reform limits organizations that can’t legally attend fundraisers. Maybe a more reasonable compromise could have been established if lobbyists were invited to participate in “lobbying reform.”

Some lobbyists also found it rather hypocritical that the week of the lobbying reform bill vote, they were invited to attend fundraisers and asked to serve on steering committees. Many lobbyists told me that they are very nervous about inadvertently violating the new rules and will not be serving on steering committees because it is just too confusing.

As we move forward, I hope that Congress’s new “Honest Leadership and Open Government” policy will allow for the lobbying industry to be an active participant in future discussions regarding legislation that affects us. Our system of government is considered a beacon of light in the world because it is supposed to encourage open debate of stakeholders, and allow for careful consideration and input from those who would be affected. Most of all, our system was designed to give people a voice. It is with frustration and disappointment that the system failed with regard to lobby reform; yet the bill passed. Those within the industry received firsthand knowledge of how this “sausage” was made; and this particular process certainly did not do justice to our legislative system.

Dave Wenhold, CAE, is a founding partner of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, a Washington government-affairs and grassroots lobbying firm. He also serves as the first vice president of the American League of Lobbyists. He can be reached at .