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Building A Bill

K Street Says Consensus Should Guide Lobby Reform

Supporters of lobbying reform are rooting for the slow drip of revelations about lawmakers and their questionable ties to lobbyists to continue. If the trickle becomes a surge, they hope, lobbying reform measures now sputtering in Congress could gain momentum.

But for a reality check, some veteran lobbyists are suggesting that would-be reformers check history books. When Congress last amended the rules a decade ago, they say, it was the result of a years-long struggle that ultimately required cooperation between watchdogs and lobbyists alike.

By contrast, this time around, K Streeters say they’ve been cut out of the process — a fact that could lead them to oppose the reform measures, thereby presenting reformers with a significant obstacle to passage.

“On the seriously overreaching issues, even people like me who have been relatively strong for disclosure would draw a line in the sand and actively lobby against them,” said Wright Andrews, a lobbying expert.

Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said his group has only been granted meetings with staffers after their reform measures have been introduced, and then only at the league’s initiative.

“I think they’ve got to start from scratch,” he said. “They’ve got to find a Republican, a visible Republican, identify what the problems are, and then introduce a bill in a very bipartisan manner.”

So far, three bills in the House and one in the Senate have attracted only Democratic support, leading many lobbyists to dismiss them as attempts to make political hay out of Republican missteps.

Most recently, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) introduced a bill that would tighten rules on privately funded Member travel, require disclosure of all contacts between lobbyists and lawmakers, and make lobbyists report money spent on grass-roots operations.

That measure, by most accounts, is tougher than its House counterparts. While some provisions in each bill may have broad appeal, lobbyists who worked on the last overhaul of lobbying laws said this process has not been open enough to build the consensus needed to pass the bills into law.

If Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of one of the House measures, “called a group of lobbyists and said ‘I’d like to work with you to help develop something,’ we’d do it,” said Tom Susman, a lobbyist at Ropes and Gray who worked on the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. “That’s how this town works. That would be good government.”

Indeed, the ALL’s Miller said his group has made several requests to meet with Meehan or his staff about the Massachusetts Democrat’s bill, with no reply.

“The fact is that we have already drafted and introduced legislation,” Meehan spokesman Matt Vogel said. “The next step is to have a public hearing.”

The recent spate of scandals involving corporate-sponsored junkets for Members and their families, and the wining, dining and gift-giving by lobbyists, may make a compelling case for reform of laws governing their interaction with lawmakers. But history suggests actually accomplishing that reform can take a while.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 was the first update of lobbying laws since 1946. Attempts to strengthen the 1946 law started nearly as soon as it passed, but the law survived unchanged through a half-century of scandals — even Watergate. While President Richard Nixon’s downfall spawned a major revamp of campaign finance laws, the lobbying reform measure it prompted failed to make it out of conference.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) took up the cause in 1989, in the wake of the Wedtech scandal, in which a New York City defense contractor paid lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence Reagan administration officials.

It took Levin multiple sets of hearings, revisions to his bill and four Congresses to get the bill approved, recalled Peter Levine, who was Levin’s lead staffer on lobbying reform at the time.

“We had input from public interest groups, but also from lobbyists’ groups,” Levine said. He said staff consulted with outsiders about “what the problems were” but added the bill “was not drafted by anyone but us.”

With support from watchdogs and lobbyists, the bill passed both chambers unanimously.

To be sure, the lobbying community itself has not yet mobilized on the reforms the way it did a decade ago. Then, the American League of Lobbyists headed a coalition that was startling for its political range, including groups from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to labor unions, and from the Christian Coalition to the liberal Alliance for Justice.

Miller said his group would try to form a similar coalition after its July 26 board meeting.

Watchdog groups, meanwhile, have already formed a loose coalition to coordinate their efforts on lobbying reform. Called the Revolving Door Working Group, the collective includes Public Citizen, the Project on Government Oversight and the Center of Concern.

Public Citizen lobbyist Craig Holman said the group is finishing a report on revolving-door issues and expects to time its release to the return of Congress after the August recess — an attempt to give reform measures a new push.

Holman, who takes a forward role among public interest groups on Capitol Hill, said he has already met a dozen times with Feingold’s staff in the past several months. While his office has not yet met with business lobbyists, a spokesman said that a meeting is set for August.

Most eyes on the Senate side are watching Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who teamed with Feingold on campaign finance reform and who has stated his interest in overhauling lobbying laws, pending the conclusion of his Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation into former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Lobbyists are already calculating how they can maneuver in a changed environment. At a breakfast roundtable hosted by ALL on Monday, several lobbyists were already strategizing and discussing potential loopholes in the proposals.

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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