Watchdog groups blast House lobby reform bill

Government watchdog groups leading the charge for strong lobbying and ethics reform lashed out yesterday at Republican leadership for removing several new disclosure requirements from the package slated for a House vote this week.

The House Rules Committee on Friday released a new version of the leadership-sponsored lobbying and ethics bill intended to curtail lobbyists’ influence on the legislative process and the spread of appropriations earmarking. But Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) eliminated many proposed rules for lobbyist financial reporting that the House Judiciary Committee had added during its markup of the bill, enraging the watchdogs.

“House Republican leaders have turned an already unacceptable lobbying and ethics bill into a complete joke,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in a statement.

Unless the Rules Committee permits voting on amendments that would strengthen the bill, Wertheimer added, “the reform vote in the House on the Republican leadership bill is ‘no’ on final passage.”

The Judiciary-approved disclosure provisions would have required lobbyists to file quarterly reports of all fundraisers and honorific events they sponsor on behalf of lawmakers, as well as any congressional retreat or meeting expenses paid by lobbyists. The earlier draft bill also would have forced lobbyists to itemize their contacts with members, their service as leadership PAC officers and the contributions they solicit for lawmakers from third parties.

But the Rules Committee’s latest lobbying and ethics bill eliminated those elements, while adding a provision that would link electronically filed quarterly disclosures to relevant filings with the Federal Election Commission. The bill retains its mandate for lobbyist reporting of political contributions and gifts given to lawmakers or staffers within existing limits.

In a letter sent yesterday to every House member, Democracy 21 and five other leading watchdogs said the new version “proceeded to eliminate the already loophole-ridden lobbying disclosure provisions reported by the House Judiciary Committee.’’

The Rules Committee’s draft “restores the ability of lobbyists to secretly provide financial assistance in multiple ways to Members, while keeping the public in the dark about these ways in which lobbyists buy access and influence with Members,” the groups wrote. Co-signers of the letter included Common Cause, Public Citizen, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the League of Women Voters and the Campaign Legal Center.

The new draft also adds stronger language to the legislation’s requirement for mandatory ethics training of all House employees, directing the chamber to develop a program for lawmakers. The previous draft had urged lawmakers to undergo ethics training while noting “that adding qualifications to service as a member may be unconstitutional.”

Responding to the groups’ letter, Dreier spokeswoman Jo Maney reiterated the bill’s goals and urged Democrats to buck their leadership by supporting the GOP package.

“This legislation is the result of input from members from both sides of the aisle, outside experts and former members,” Maney said in an e-mail. “It reflects a strong desire to fulfill the public’s right to know through increased accountability, transparency and disclosure. We hope that Democrats will join Republicans” in voting yes during Thursday’s scheduled vote.