Meehan to GOP: Hands off my bill

Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) has some advice for colleagues who want to attach his proposed clampdown on 527 groups to lobbying-reform bills: Don’t do it.

“I don’t want to see a poison pill that ends up being an excuse for members to vote against lobbying reform, because we need comprehensive lobbying reform,” Meehan told The Hill. “Adding 527s complicates passage … creates confusion, creates excuses.”

Meehan’s credentials as a campaign-finance and ethics reformer win him bipartisan praise, but that did not prevent 527 contribution limits proposed by him and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) from stalling on their way to the floor last year. House and Senate Republican leadership is planning to use must-pass lobbying reform as an opening to take on 527s, with the Shays-Meehan plan serving as a model.

Even if the 527 language in tomorrow’s GOP lobbying and ethics packages is identical to his, Meehan expects the debate to split lawmakers otherwise committed to reining in lobbying abuses.

“We need to stay on target,” Meehan said. “527 [reform] means different things to different people, and it’s controversial to members of both parties.”

Much of last year’s opposition to Meehan’s bill came from his own party. Democrats cringe at the thought of losing the hundreds of millions of dollars that 527s used to promote Democratic candidates in the last election. Republicans were more inclined to back 527 regulation, although a competing campaign-finance bill from Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.) attracted more GOP backers.

Shays-Meehan would curb the limitless soft money flowing to 527 groups, named after the section of the tax code that authorized them, and tighten rules governing advertising by the groups. Pence-Wynn also subjects 527 groups to Federal Election Commission disclosure rules but includes a removal of the aggregate limits on individuals’ ability to spread donations among candidates and committees.

Shays indicated that he would support Meehan’s plea for separate consideration of lobbying reform and new caps on 527s.

“Passing lobby-reform legislation with bipartisan support is crucial to the ultimate goal: rebuilding Americans’ trust of their government,” Shays said through a spokeswoman. “If 527 reform is going to turn the debate on cleaning up lobbying into partisan bickering, I’d prefer to see an up-or-down vote on two clean bills.”

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has discussed folding new 527 rules into his lobbying-reform plan, telling reporters this month that addressing the burgeoning influence of 527s is “an important part” of any lobbying and ethics overhaul.

“We know how much money comes into campaigns and where it’s coming from, and all that’s obfuscated by 527s,” Hastert said. “And if we want to be fair about it, we need to put 527s under the same responsibility and accountability [requirements] that everybody else is under.”

House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) has echoed Hastert’s comments, as have Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Dreier and Santorum are the leadership-designated lobbying-reform coordinators in their chambers.

Hastert’s and Dreier’s offices did not return requests for comment.

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, who joined with other watchdogs to push for the Shays-Meehan 527 bill and against Pence-Wynn, echoed Meehan’s call for an up-or-down vote on 527s. While GOP leaders have hinted they would borrow largely from Shays-Meehan for their lobbying-reform bill, Wertheimer said even a small portion of Pence and Wynn’s language could prove fatal to any reform effort.

The aggregate-limit provision, Wertheimer said, “would totally change the nature of the legislation, making it a Trojan horse for gutting the McCain-Feingold law” that established the limits in 2002.

Pence-Wynn met with an onslaught of criticism from government watchdogs and the media, rendering it equally hard to bring the bill to a floor vote last year. Democrats and centrist Republicans could be forced to accept a campaign-finance rollback to make good on their public support of lobbying and ethics reform, depending on the specific 527 language attached to tomorrow’s legislation.

Hastert’s last attempt at attaching 527 reform to a must-pass bill came just before the House recessed in December, when a blend of Shays-Meehan and Pence-Wynn language showed up in the defense authorization conference report. Senate objections forced House leaders to backtrack, leading some on the Hill to speculate that the same phrasing will be used in this week’s lobbying-reform bill.

Dreier has reached out to Meehan to discuss the GOP lobbying and ethics proposals, only broad outlines of which have been openly discussed. But Meehan said the conversation did not touch on 527 reform, and he rapped Republicans for failing to address the crippling stalemate of the ethics committee.

“It’s interesting that some people are quick to want to add 527 reform who haven’t proposed reforming the congressional ethics process,” Meehan said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders are also expected to introduce lobbying and ethics reforms this week. Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider endorsed Meehan’s advice to take up 527s in a separate bill.

“Republicans need to get serious about cleaning up their culture of corruption,” Crider said. “If they want to play games, people will see them for what they are.”

Since the 2004 election, seven of the 10 most active federal 527s have been Democratic-leaning or affiliated with labor unions, a key Democratic constituency, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But Republican-leaning 527s eclipsed their Democratic counterparts in the spending sprint that closed the 2004 election cycle.