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Lobby League Puts Stamp on Reform Efforts

As Congress prepares to return to the question of whether to tighten the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, the American League of Lobbyists has adopted a set of principles intended to inform Members about what the lobbying community thinks should be done.

At its August board meeting, the league, which represents more than 700 lobbyists, concluded that the LDA should apply to public relations and grassroots professionals as well as lobbyists.

In addition, the league wants Congress to examine whether the LDA is being enforced stringently enough, and it wants lobbyists to file their disclosure forms simultaneously with the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate, which currently administer the LDA separately.

League president Paul Miller said the principles aim to “let the public know who’s doing what and who’s getting paid to do what.”

The league has been working on its statement of principles since the beginning of the year, as the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff and public relations specialist Michael Scanlon gained steam. Abramoff was indicted earlier this month on charges stemming from his involvement in a casino venture called SunCruz, and he faces probes into other past activities as well.

The Abramoff saga has given rise to Democratic-sponsored lobbying and ethics reforms in the House and Senate. But “as of right now, we don’t support the bills as written,” Miller said, adding that unless the lobbying and ethics reform effort becomes bipartisan, it is not likely to go anywhere.

Miller said ALL wants the definition of lobbying to expand to cover all sorts of legislative advocacy efforts that are currently exempt from filing disclosure forms, such as advertising and media campaigns and grassroots efforts.

The group’s statement says that “current loopholes” should be closed so that legislative activities of “church groups, state and local governments, and public relations professionals” should fall under the LDA’s scope.

“PR companies have a huge impact” on the legislative process, Miller said. “Why shouldn’t those people be regulated and forced to report like we do?”

Paul Johnson, regional president of PR firm Fleishman-Hillard, said that “more transparency in the process, regardless of whether it’s by a lobbyist or a grassroots or public affairs specialist, is good. I think that’s how we approach the process: The more open it is, the better received it is by the audience.”

Johnson added, however, that “what lobbyists do and what communications professionals do is different. People who are working in issues but are never setting foot on Capitol Hill — I don’t think they should register.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), one of the co-sponsors of legislation to reform lobbying and ethics laws, said in a statement that “I applaud ALL for its effort to examine current lobbying practices. ALL’s principles are laudable, but any reform after 10 years must be comprehensive in its approach.”

Emanuel added that supporting “the full online disclosure of lobbying reports is a good first step. In the last three or four years, under a Republican Congress, K Street has virtually become a Congressional back office — from trips, to staffing, to drafting major legislation. And what most of us consider out of bounds, the Republicans in Congress have made common practice.”

The league’s statement of principles does not address such issues as Congressional gift rules. “Those don’t need to be legislated,” Miller said. “These are rules that can be done within the House and Senate. If you don’t want us to buy you lunch or dinner for 10 or 12 bucks, pass a rule.”

Lobbying reforms, Miller said, have climbed to the top of ALL’s agenda, which also includes working toward a frequent visitor pass for lobbyists and others who routinely make the rounds on Capitol Hill.

“We have an obligation to our profession and our members,” Miller said. “On the other hand, people will say our statement of principles is just self-serving. It’s really a no-win situation for us.”

Larry Noble, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics, said he sees “positive and less positive” aspects in ALL’s statement.

“I think it is very common for a professional association to do this type of thing when they feel they are under attack, and clearly lobbyists have been under attack,” Noble said.

Noble called the league’s proposal for uniform electronic disclosure “a good idea. On the other side, if what they’re suggesting is to bring within the definition of lobbyists every group that is involved in advocacy, then they’re going to drag down any reform, because such a broad rule would not only have no chance of passing, but would also probably be unconstitutional.”

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, another longtime watchdog of lobbying and campaign finance, said that regardless of the merits of the league’s principles, they won’t solve the basic problems that exist.

“Certainly we agree with some of these, but the American League of Lobbyists has had a code of ethics for years, and it didn’t stop Jack Abramoff from engaging in all kinds of abuses,” he said.

ALL board member and first vice president Larry Bory, who is vice president for federal government relations at the architecture and engineering firm HDR Inc., said he urges caution when it comes to reforming the LDA.

“I’m not only a fiscal conservative, but a legislative conservative too,” said Bory. “Some of the allegations that have been out there concerning lobbying violations are not about the LDA, but about other laws. The reason we’re doing this is we feel, as the professional organization that represents the lobbying community, we needed a set of principles, rather than responding to each piece of legislation.”

One of the other areas ALL has addressed is the enforcement of the law that governs its members. In its statement of principles, the group writes: “Before Congress imposes a new set of regulations with potential loopholes, ALL urges Congress to carefully review the current LDA to determine if and where problems exist. If the current LDA is not being enforced, adding additional penalties and rules without proper enforcement will not have any real effect.”

Bory said that as a lobbyist he worries that his peers will end up filling out and submitting more paperwork that gets little notice from regulators. “We are concerned about additional paperwork when there seems to be no body at the other end,” he said.

Miller added: “The minute the story broke on Jack Abramoff, it troubled us. This is not something that we take very lightly. We are very committed to this. If there need to be some changes, we want to be a part of that … we need to clean it up.”

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