Progress on lobbying reform legislation has hit a snag in the House as rank-and-file Democrats raise concerns over the potential reach of the bill.
Some lawmakers are questioning whether the package should include a requirement that lobbyists disclose the amount of campaign checks they “bundle,” that is, collect and then hand over to candidates. The Senate earlier this month passed a measure that included such a requirement, and Democratic Reps. Marty Meehan (Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) offered the proposal in the House as a stand-alone bill.
But disagreement over the new transparency plan, among other items, is forestalling work on a draft bill House Democratic leaders will send through regular order.
One Democratic staffer said leaders hope to unveil a draft in the next two weeks. “We’re already considerably behind where we wanted to be at this point,” the aide said.
“There’s a discussion going on within the Democratic Caucus,” Meehan said of debate over the bundling requirement. “But we’re pushing it, and we want it to be clear what the law will be. In other words, whenever you try draft a law about these things, it can be tricky.”
House Democrats kicked off the reform drive by approving a sweeping new rules package as their first official act after reclaiming the majority. Those changes address only lawmaker behavior, however, and the chamber must match the Senate-passed bill that imposes new disclosures and revolving-door restrictions on lobbyists.
Public interest groups are rallying behind the requirement, calling it a test of whether House Democrats are serious enough about reform to uphold the standard set by the Senate.
“This is at the top of our priorities, and it’s really a defining issue in the House,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer.
Under the provision, lobbyists would be required every three months to file reports detailing not only their own political contributions and the amount raised by any fundraising events they hosted, but also the total amount of checks they solicit, gather and then hand over to campaigns.
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said it would provide “a critical new piece of information.”
“It’s huge. Having the information about the amount of money a single lobbyist funnels to a Member’s re-election campaign will give the public the ability to judge how much influence that lobbyist has,” she said.
But others are speaking up against the new disclosure rule. Aides said leaders are fielding objections from within the Caucus. And at least some on K Street are lodging complaints as well.
One Democratic lobbyist active in fundraising, speaking privately, said he has raised the issue with lawmakers in both chambers. “I’ve said, ‘You might be misguided here,’” this lobbyist said. “People don’t fully understand the impact of how broad the legislation is.”
Added Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists: “I’ve got to believe Democrats, just as much as Republicans, want to stop this, because if they don’t, we’re going to stop” bundling, he said. “They’ve got to be hearing this from members of their own caucus.”
There is no definition of bundling under current election law. Individuals who want to pass along other people’s campaign donations need to either work for the campaign itself, be authorized by the campaign to do so or file a letter with the Federal Election Commission disclosing the activity.
But ethics experts said lobbyists are almost uniformly unaware of the rules and regularly violate them when collecting checks for candidates. “The reporting requirement is observed more in the breach than in reality,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.
Since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 banned soft-money contributions, candidates in expensive races have found ways to institutionalize bundling as a way to ease the headaches of collecting smaller checks. Most famously, President Bush in his 2000 bid for the White House bestowed the title of “Pioneer” on each supporter who bundled at least $100,000 in campaign checks. For his re-election effort in 2004, he repeated the strategy and created a higher honor — “Ranger” — for every backer able to bundle at least $200,000.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) borrowed a page from the Bush fundraising playbook when he challenged him in 2004. He charged volunteer “vice chairs” with raising at least $50,000 and “chairs” with rounding up $100,000.
Several Senate races also have made use of the technique. Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, has helped create a “team” system for high-dollar Senate contests. Lobbyists who sign up for a team are given fundraising targets and assigned a tracking code, so every dollar they raise is credited to them in a central database. Their performance is measured in weekly fundraising reports distributed to the entire group.
That approach helped turned the tide for Republican candidates in a number of nail-biters, including former Sen. Jim Talent (Mo.) in 2002, and in 2004, Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and John Thune (S.D.), who knocked off then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).
Even if the bundling disclosure requirement makes it into the House bill, there is no guarantee it will survive a conference and make it into law. The House Judiciary Committee last year overwhelmingly adopted a similar provision offered by Van Hollen. But House Republican leaders later stripped the measure and blocked attempts to restore it.
Aides and outside groups said House Democratic leaders also are in talks over the scope of a cooling-off period for former lawmakers and staff who take lobbying jobs. And they are trying to narrow a provision, stripped from the Senate bill in the face of intense outside pressure, to require lobbyists to disclose what they are paid to stimulate grass-roots activity.
Matthew Murray contributed to this report.