REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
It's always news when politicians keep their campaign promises, or even try to, especially when the issue is lobbying. This week, Democrats in the House of Representatives may require lawmakers to disclose more of their relations with lobbyists.
But as NPR's Peter Overby tells us, plenty of House members don't think more sunshine is a good idea.
PETER OVERBY: The House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to take up the new lobbying rules last week. But irate Democrats were raging against the bill behind closed doors, and negotiations on its provisions continued up to the last minute. When the panel finally met, committee chairman John Conyers pointed to one message from the 2006 election.
Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Detroit; Chairman, House Judiciary Committee): The American people want Congress to do a better job of keeping lobbyists from calling the shots on legislative outcomes through backroom machinations.
OVERBY: But having said that, Conyers promptly killed the one provision that had most infuriated House members. It would have made members wait two years after leaving office before they could become lobbyists. And it would have covered any kind of lobbying activity, not just visits in person to Capitol Hill.
Conyers was not so impolitic as to actually say that, instead, he talked about a separate weaker restriction affecting the best-paid congressional staffers.
Rep. CONYERS: 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.
OVERBY: 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 lobby 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. Committee Republican Dan Lundgren of California put it this way.
Representative DAN LUNDGREN (Republican, California): 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.
OVERBY: 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 for many donors for one favorite legislator.
After the meeting, lobbyists from government watchdog groups said they were realistic about the bill's treatment in committee. Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center.
Ms. MEREDITH McGEHEE (Policy Director, Campaign Legal Center): The Democratic House is realizing they have to try and produce something, and particularly for their freshmen. 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.
OVERBY: One of those old bulls, and is long-time legislators, is Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's closest allies. McGehee remembers that after the election, Murtha trashed the plans to overhaul ethics rules.
Ms. McGEHEE: Mr. Murtha was the one who described all of this concerning with ethics and lobby exposure as total crap. Well, you know Mr. Murtha, the total crap caucus has a fairly large membership.
OVERBY: Just how large could become clear this week, when the full House is expected to vote the lobby bill up or down.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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