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LDA Enforcement: Is It Strong Enough?

It usually goes down like this. A lobbyist spies his competitors traipsing around the marble halls of Congress, urging Members and staffers to craft or kill legislation.

The next step: The lobbyist checks on his opponents’ lobbying-disclosure forms to see if those public declarations accurately reflect what he sees going on up on Capitol Hill.

Maybe they don’t match up, in which case the lobbyist can file a private, written complaint against the competitor.

Or maybe a lobbyist forgets to fill out all the boxes in her lobbying disclosures, in which case the law’s administrators will send a polite admonition.

All it takes to correct a violation is a prompt written response from the lobbyist in question and case closed.

Both situations offer a glimpse into the enforcement of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 — a quiet process that, in the eyes of some, may be a little too muted for the public good.

One decade after its passage, Members of Congress are calling for the act’s reform.

On the one hand, lobbyists admit that the law has its shortcomings, including a widespread perception that enforcement is lax.

On the other hand, they say that the law still offers adequate regulation of their activities without overwhelming them and the public with paperwork.

Galen Reser, the top in-house lobbyist for PepsiCo, has long filled out his company’s federal lobbying forms, which last year amounted to 29 pages that reported on $720,000 worth of lobbying expenditures.

The LDA, Reser said, “tells you how much we’re spending, it tells you what issues we’re working on, tells you whether you’re working on that issue with Congress or the administration or both, tells you who’s working on the issue.”

Pam Gavin, superintendent of the Senate Office of Public Records, oversees LDA disclosures on the Senate side. Her office, along with the Clerk of the House, administers the LDA.

“From my perspective,” Gavin said, “I think it’s working pretty well. Anybody in the world can go to our Web site and look at lobbying reports and see what’s being done.” So far this year, the Senate side has received 25,500 lobbying disclosure documents.

Explaining her office’s role, Gavin said that “Section 6 of the law is very clear. We may inquire; we may not investigate. We’re administrators and not enforcers.”

If the lobbying registrant fails to respond to her inquiries, Gavin’s office will refer the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. The penalty for violating the LDA is a civil fine up to $50,000.

But finding out details of these cases is more difficult than one might expect.

The LDA doesn’t say whether cases should be made public. Gavin’s office has never made public the number of LDA-related referrals it has made to the U.S. attorney’s office, much less any details about individual cases.

The U.S. attorney’s office so far has been no more forthcoming. Justice Department officials, in interviews earlier this month with the Bureau of National Affairs, argued that disclosing the settlement of LDA violations would contravene the Privacy Act, a statute that bars any federal agency from publicizing most records pertaining to individuals.

The U.S. attorney’s office confirmed to Roll Call that the office has not previously made public LDA-related actions. A spokesman said that there have been “a number of referrals” but “few” actions related to the act.

Watchdogs say the current method of disclosure is not serving the public interest.

“You can’t judge how well enforcement is working unless you know what settlements they’ve reached and what cases they’ve had,” said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Occasionally, responses to the Senate’s inquiries pop up in public filings, providing a small window into the world of LDA enforcement.

After taking over the Washington office of MasterCard International, for instance, Vice President Joe Rubin sent a letter to the public records office apologizing for sending his company’s semiannual lobbying report about six months late.

“I understand that the report is very late,” he wrote in the Feb. 8, 2005, letter accompanying MasterCard’s report for the first half of 2004. “I took over this position in May of 2004, and my office and files were in complete disarray, and I was unable to accurately file. I fully intend to have my reports in on time in the future.”

Rubin did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Former Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) recently dispatched a response to the public records office with a registration for a client he no longer represents. “I am sorry you did not receive the initial registration and cannot understand why not as it was timely mailed,” wrote Wallop, who could not be reached for comment.

Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said that while the current lobbying regulation is strong enough, the system could stand to be tougher on the enforcement end.

Scandals involving the dealings of embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his one-time associate and grass-roots lobbyist Michael Scanlon are likely not a problem with the law itself but “are probably due to the lack of enforcement,” he said.

But some outside experts say that even without making a public example of violators, the LDA system still works.

Kenneth Gross, an expert on federal and state lobbying laws who provides regular training for his clients on how to comply with the lobby law, said that while “people do not play fast and loose with the rules, after 10 years, there is some lack of understanding of what gets included in a report.”

When errors surface, they tend to be inadvertent, he said. As soon as a company corrects an error, it has absolved itself from a violation. “You really have to work at getting referred under this law,” he said.

Legislation introduced by Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) calls for lobbyists to file quarterly lobbying statements (as opposed to the semiannual ones currently) and would require disclosure and regulation of grass-roots activity.

But some lobbyists say that Meehan-Emanuel would require too much wasted time and effort for a decidedly modest payoff.

Bill Miller is vice president for Congressional affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which last year filed 313 pages of disclosures that reported almost $29 million in lobbying. If Congress were to amend the lobbying laws to make them day-by-day accounts of lobbyists’ work, he said, “you’d have to build another branch at the National Archives to house all these logs of these lobbyists.”

Lobbyist C. Michael Fulton of Golin/Harris International added: “Where do you stop? The tendency is to legislate or regulate based on large egregious activities, and Jack Abramoff has just added fuel to the fire for the reform of the lobbying disclosure act. But the bulk of lobbyists comply with that to the letter.”

Even so, Fulton acknowledged, “there’s no perceived enforcement.”

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