White House demands more information from K Street on lobbying registrations

The White House is looking to expand lobbying registration requirements to those who spend less than a fifth of their work time lobbying.

The Obama administration wants to close a “loophole” in the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) that allows individuals to avoid registering as lobbyists if they spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying.

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Such a proposal could force Washington heavyweights, such as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), to register as lobbyists.

The proposal was included in a fact sheet distributed Wednesday night to watchdog groups while President Barack Obama was finishing up his State of the Union address and goes beyond the new requirements the president outlined in his speech.

“It’s past time that the Lobbying Disclosure Act was updated to conform all lobbying to this practice,” the fact sheet says.

“The current law also contains a loophole that allows many lobbyists to avoid registering so long as they keep their actual lobbying activities to less than 20% of their time working for any particular client, and another loophole that allows foreign agent lobbyists to avoid full disclosure of their activities. Those loopholes should be closed,” the document states.

In his State of the Union speech Wednesday, Obama often blamed K Street for stalling his agenda on Capitol Hill and offered specific proposals to shed more light on what lobbyists are doing.

The document repeats Obama’s requests for lobbyists to limit their campaign contributions as well as to disclose everyone they lobby, the substance of their advocacy and when the lobbying took place. But it goes further by saying the LDA should be changed in order to disclose more individuals who are lobbying policymakers for their clients but have avoided registering so far.

The proposed changes come as many blame the administration for a spike in lobbyists canceling their registrations in order to avoid tough new restrictions. The Obama administration last year requested that registered lobbyists not serve on advisory committees, restricted lobbying of the stimulus package and issued an executive order that severely limited lobbyists being hired by the administration. It also follows a year of discussions between White House aides and public interest advocates on what to do about the lobbying disclosure law, which was amended substantially by the 2007 ethics bill.

“This is something the White House has put on the political agenda. It was there once. It is now back there again,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.

Holman and others said lobbying law has not provided enough details to the public about the influence industry.

“The current law is not up to snuff in giving a complete and accurate picture of what is really going on in this town when it comes to influencing policy,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center.

McGehee said she was not sure if lowering the law’s 20 percent threshold was the right way to increase information on who is lobbying. Nevertheless, it could force many people to register who have managed to avoid the requirement by limiting their lobbying time. For many, the most obvious example is Daschle, who is a “senior political adviser” at the law firm of DLA Piper.

“I can’t help but think of someone like Tom Daschle,” McGehee said. “There are people in this town who are very influential and have clients. Because of who they are, their phone calls are returned and they get meetings. In the case of Daschle, they are very well-respected and their reputation precedes them.”

Holman said the best way to make sure lobbyists register is to require policymakers to disclose who they meet with, as Obama requested. Then the lobbying law can be enforced.

“We will know the names and faces of who is trying to influence legislation. That will give us the means to enforce the law,” Holman said.

The Foreign Agent Registration Act already requires lobbyists and other representatives of foreign governments and political parties to disclose all their contacts with policymakers on behalf of their clients. Public interest groups tried to include a similar requirement for the LDA in the 2007 ethics bill, but that effort failed.

Reform-minded groups cheered Obama’s inclusion of the transparency measures in his speech to Congress and prodded him to go further.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said in a blog post that her group was “extremely happy” about the speech, especially about his call for a central database of congressional earmark requests.

But the president should not limit himself, according to Miller. She said Obama should push for new data on any lobbyist meeting or earmark request to be made public within 24 hours of its occurring.

Though some lawmakers post their earmark requests on their own congressional websites, they are not required to do so, which Obama’s proposed database would require. Since 2007, all granted earmark requests have been disclosed in spending bills.

It is unclear who on Capitol Hill would sponsor a measure to change lobbying law. Further, public interest lobbyists said a bill to change the law would likely come after the legislative response to last week’s Supreme Court campaign finance reform ruling is finished.

Legislation to limit corporate and union election spending is being coordinated by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Norm Eisen, the president’s ethics counsel, has been busy working with the two lawmakers’ aides on the response to the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

The president’s harsh criticism of K Street on Wednesday, a common theme during his administration’s first year, was greeted with anger and frustration from lobbyists. Most will likely oppose the new restrictions and disclosure requirements outlined in Obama’s speech.

“This president has done more to tar and feather the lobbying profession than 10 Jack Abramoffs,” said Howard Marlowe, president of Marlowe & Co. “On the one hand, his proposal is pandering to the same public anger that has given his administration a scare. On the other hand, what he has proposed will send a wicked chill on free speech.”

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