Doubt about lobbying reform

As I write this, the Senate is still grappling with the ethics and lobbying bill the House sent over on a commanding 411-8 roll call.

At this late stage, GOP Senate leaders are not united in an approach, which is interesting. The Democratic Senate leadership camp is of the view that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal MORE (R-Ky.) has not locked down a position and has sent conflicting signals about what he will do. Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) opposes the overhaul. Still, that Democratic leadership camp, as of Wednesday afternoon, I’m told, is optimistic that it would win the cloture vote this week, getting the supermajority — 66 votes — needed to advance the bill to final passage.

There’s a debate over whether the legislation is strong enough, especially when it comes to earmarks. Democrats are making the argument that the legislative intent is there so that, according to a memo from Democratic sources written to assuage concerns, the bill “requires every Senator that requests an earmark to certify that neither they nor their immediate family members would benefit” and for earmarks to be posted before a vote.  Taxpayers for Common Sense on Wednesday was still pushing for language in an earlier version of the bill that went further, with a far more expansive definition of “family” — as Steve Ellis, vice president of the group put it, to include “all members you can think of.”

But leaving that earmark debate aside, the requirement for lobbyists to disclose all the ways they inject money into the system is an absolute advancement. If this legislation becomes law, reporters and researchers — whether amateur, professional or “para-professional” (e.g., the bloggers organized by the Sunlight Foundation and other outlets) — can, for the first time, connect the dots on lobbyist giving, from direct campaign donations to presidential libraries, leadership political action committees, inaugural committees and, presumably, legal defense funds.

Even so, there may be new ways of giving to exploit. The other day I got a call from a law firm pitching me an interview with a congressman in connection with an event that, if publicized in a major newspaper, would help solidify his relationship with a core constituency in his district.

I was, of course, curious about the relationship — why this law firm would be volunteering to do some PR for the member, who is in a competitive district. Turns out that law firm runs a foundation and the foundation was staging an event that could not be more helpful to the member. But since there was no donation involved, it would be hard for the public ever to know the off-the-books assistance occurred.

I’ve been amused at the concerns I’ve read about concerning transparency over bundling activity, as if the reporting requirements were onerous. That’s a laugh. Campaigns go to great lengths to know who is raising money for them — to know who to stroke, who to motivate, whose name to add to host committees. As for the lobbyist-bundlers, if they are raising so much money for so many lawmakers and their associated causes and campaigns that it’s going to be a pain to disclose — then all the more reason for the new law.

Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. E-mail: