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Efforts Intensify on House Lobby Bill

As House Democrats prepare to return to their unfinished work reforming lobbying rules, they are struggling over how to address new disclosure requirements for “Astroturf” lobbying campaigns.

A broadly drawn provision aimed at the practice sparked vigorous opposition from outside groups across the ideological spectrum when the Senate took it up last month, and that chamber voted to scrap it from a package of ethics changes.

But Congressional watchdog groups have made the change a top priority, putting pressure on House Democrats to address it as they draft a bill overhauling lobbying laws.

Now, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and his staff are working to narrow the scope of the provision in hopes of winning the support of groups that helped bury it in the Senate.

“Having disclosure of these efforts is an important provision that I hope will be in the final lobbying bill,” Meehan said in a statement.

“The final product will be significantly narrower than the Senate language, and I hope a lot of groups will see the difference and support it.”

As opposed to the Senate measure, the Meehan version would not require organizations that hire firms to help stimulate grass-roots activity to disclose those efforts. Instead, the measure focuses on the firms themselves.

Under the Senate proposal, those firms would have had to register with Congress if they earned more than $25,000 a quarter for trying to stir the public to lobby lawmakers. The Meehan version hikes that trigger to $100,000. And it only would require firms to name an individual client, and make a good-faith estimate of what that client is paying, if it forks over more than $50,000 over the three-month reporting period.

Sources close to the process stress that the language is fluid, as aides and reformers try to build support for the plan among membership organizations that carry significant weight with lawmakers. “It’s tough, and we’re cognizant of that,” one House Democratic aide said. “The Senate proposal had an easy death, and that was a clear sign.”

Indeed, a loose coalition of outside groups, most of them socially conservative, raised concerns that the Senate measure could end up curbing First Amendment rights and saddling shoestring interest groups with burdensome reporting requirements or stiff penalties. By a vote of 55-43, Senators agreed to strike it.

Groups lined up on both sides of the issue are starting to focus on it as House lawmakers wade back into a debate over ethics and lobbying reform. Democratic leaders first tackled the issue in the opening days of the 110th Congress, pushing through a sweeping slate of rules changes aimed at restricting behavior by lawmakers and aides.

They are now left with the task of following up with a bill to restrict lobbyists. The Senate addressed both at once, approving a package of rules and statutory changes in late January. House Democrats are mulling how to match that bill’s provisions requiring lobbyists to disclose political checks they bundle for candidates and extending the cooling-off period for former lawmakers and staffers-turned-lobbyists.

The grass-roots lobbying disclosure is another headache. Aides said House Democratic leaders would like to address the topic but don’t want to force their Caucus to take a tough vote on it only to see it scotched in conference in anticipation of Senate objections.

Several important groups are already poised to oppose the narrowed language. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington, D.C., legislative office, said she can’t comment on the plan until she sees the details. But, she added, “Americans have the right to petition their government, and trying to prevent people from engaging their Members of Congress has nothing to do with Jack Abramoff or going golfing in Scotland. It has to do with how our democracy functions, so it needs to be protected, not inhibited.”

Likewise, Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said he needs to see the language of the proposal but that his group “objects in principle that Congress should be requiring registration and reporting by people merely because they’re engaged in educating the public on what is going on in Congress.”

Advocates of the reform measure said they are focusing on peeling off support of labor and faith-based organizations that were lukewarm at best to the Senate version. They can count one convert among their backers for this round: the Sierra Club.

Cathy Duvall, the group’s national political director, said they spoke up against the Senate version because it would have created an “administrative nightmare” that would have forced them to cease altogether much of their political activity rather than risk falling afoul of the law. But she said the Sierra Club is “totally comfortable” with the pared-back provision. “We believe disclosure is a good way to provide the public the information they need to sort through a decision on an issue,” she said.

The topic will get its first official airing this week when the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee holds a Thursday hearing on the Senate-passed bill, titled S. 1. Former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith is slated to testify and said he will focus on opposing grass-roots lobbying disclosure on principle. “If there’s anything people show they’re concerned about, it’s not that citizens are contacting Washington too much,” he said. “The purpose of disclosure is to inform the citizens of what government is doing — it’s not to inform the government of what citizens are doing.”

Reformers counter that special interests are pumping more and more of their money into efforts to get people beyond the Beltway to serve as proxies in their lobbying wars. They argue the public has a right to know who is behind the campaigns and how much they are spending.

“There’s a black hole in the lobbying disclosure laws,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “This provision is aimed at getting on the public record the extremely large amounts of money spent on these paid campaigns aimed at getting the public to lobby Congress.”

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