House to Weigh More Disclosure of Lobby Ties

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers i i

hide captionHouse Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) killed a provision that would have made House members wait two years after leaving office before they could become lobbyists.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) killed a provision that would have made House members wait two years after leaving office before they could become lobbyists.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This week, the House of Representatives may require lobbyists to disclose more about their relations with members of Congress. But as the lobby overhaul bill moves toward the floor, there are plenty of Democrats and Republicans with safe seats, who don't think more "sunshine" is such a good idea.

The House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to take up the new lobbying rules last week. But angry Democrats were raging against the bill behind closed doors, and negotiations on its provisions continued to the last minute.

When the panel finally met, Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) said voters in the 2006 election told Congress "to do a better job of keeping lobbyists from calling the shots on legislative outcomes through backroom machinations."

But having said that, Conyers promptly killed the one provision that had most infuriated House members. It would have made House members wait two years after leaving office before they could become lobbyists. Current law sets a one-year limit. And the new provision would have covered any kind of lobbying activity — not just visits in person to Capitol Hill, as under current law.

Conyers was not so impolitic as to actually spell out that this "revolving door" law had angered his colleagues. Instead, he talked about a separate, weaker restriction that would affect the best-paid congressional staffers.

"I've discussed this issue with numerous members on both sides of the aisle, who've expressed concerns about the potential unintended consequences on the ability of the members and committees to attract and retain top-flight staff," Conyers said.

And with that, the bill was no longer a threat to the favorite career path for former members of Congress.

The committee also voted against requiring disclosure from the professional consultants who conduct grassroots lobbying campaigns — a practice sometimes known as "Astroturf" lobbying.

Astroturf campaigns deliver whatever grassroots sentiment the client might need. They've been around longer than anyone can remember. But reform advocates have never been able to draw a line between genuine grassroots movements and the made-to-order variety.

Critics attacked this latest disclosure proposal as unconstitutional. Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-CA) said, "This, in a very real way, would chill the most essential activity we have in our political process, which is encouraging people at the local level to contact us."

The bill would put more light on some shadowy aspects of lobbying — for instance, contributions to charities sponsored by lawmakers, and "bundling," by which one fundraiser solicits checks from many donors for one favored lawmaker.

Ken Gross, a Washington ethics lawyer with corporate clients, called the lobby reform bill strictly an inside game.

"The corporate community largely just wants to know what the rules are, so they can comply with the rules," Gross said.

After the meeting, lobbyists from government watchdog groups said they were realistic about the bill's treatment in committee.

"The Democratic House is realizing they have to try and produce something, and particularly for their freshmen," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. "At the same time, they are fighting a bipartisan problem, and that is the 'old bulls' and the people in safe districts, who really don't believe in this."

One of the "old bulls" — that is, the longtime legislators — is Rep. John Murtha (D-PA); he's also one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's closest allies. McGehee remembers that after the election, Murtha trashed plans to overhaul ethics rules.

"Mr. Murtha was the one who described all this concern with ethics and lobby disclosure as total crap," she said. "Well, Mr. Murtha, the total crap caucus has a fairly large membership."

The strength of that caucus could become clear this week, when the full House is expected to vote the lobby bill up, or down.

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