Most effective bundlers are not registered lobbyists

During his State of the Union address, the president announced his intention to seek a ban on campaign contribution bundling by lobbyists. Such a ban should be enacted swiftly. But it should not stop there. The ban should extend to anyone who advocates for governmental action of any kind. 

Thanks to segments of the media and the public interest community, the average American may well believe that each of the approximately 15,000 registered lobbyists in Washington has a bagful of money that he or she hands out at the doors of the House and Senate chambers. Few of those lobbyists in fact raise any money at all from others, but many do make personal contributions up to the limit of $2,500 per election. Granted, that is a lot of money, but that is not an amount would be considered corrupting.

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Suffice it to say, however, the perception that there are lobbyists who raise large sums of money for officeholders in an attempt to curry favor, while greatly exaggerated, is damaging on many levels and should be addressed.

In that regard, the president’s proposal to prohibit lobbyists from bundling is sound and should be pursued. But like most good ideas, the devil is in the details. 

First, bundling has to be defined. That might not be an easy task — just look at what came out of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act requirement for candidates to report the names of lobbyists who bundle contributions on their behalf. Therefore, the proposal should be straight-forward and simply define bundling as the soliciting and collecting, or directing the forwarding of, a contribution to a candidate. 

In order to make this as effective as possible, any amount raised other than a lobbyist’s own contribution should trigger the provision. (A lobbyist should be able to contribute personally to a candidate, if for no other reason than it could well be unconstitutional to prohibit that.) And, most importantly, to whom should it apply? Of course, to all who are registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), but it should not stop there? 

Today, some of the most influential advocates and agents for government action are individuals who raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for candidates and political parties but are not registered as lobbyists. They are leaders of industry, society and the arts. They advocate for all types of causes and interests, national and international. They are not registered as lobbyists for several reasons. None are likely to be compensated for working to advance their agenda. In fact, they or their businesses likely employ and or retain registered lobbyists. And the few that are compensated rarely spend a sufficient amount of time on lobbying activities to require registration. Because of that, none of their actions are reported. 

And yet, they are able to speak face-to-face with the president, members of his Cabinet and leaders of the House and Senate at exclusive events as a direct result of having raised hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for their campaigns and political parties. These individuals are infinitely more powerful and persuasive than any individual who today is registered as a lobbyist. 

Should there be a difference between these two classes of advocates based on the fact that one met the formulaic definition of lobbyist under the LDA and the other did not? Should we not have the opportunity to know who they are and for what they are asking? Of course, if they were required to register and there was a ban on bundling by lobbyists, they would not be at those events. Or they could have raised the money, attended the events, but been unable to plead their cause. Life can get complicated at times when right and might collide. 

Virtually all agree that to some extent, money is the problem, whether real or perceived. As Kenneth Doyle reported in the Bureau of National Affairs, the head of the Public Campaign, a leading watchdog group, recently said “It is the big money behind the lobbyists that’s the problem. It’s not the hired guns, but those that hire them. You’ve got to go after the boss.”

If the president shares that belief, he should include in his proposal a ban on bundling by anyone who advocates, advances or promotes policies before any government official. It’s too important of an issue to limit to only lobbyists.

Spulak is a King & Spalding partner and chairman of the firm’s Government Advocacy and Public Policy Practice Group. He served as Democratic staff director and general counsel of the House Committee on Rules and as general counsel to the House.