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House Judiciary Committee Waters Down Lobby Disclosure Bill

Panel Votes to Reduce Two-Year Lobby Ban to One Year

Smoothing its road to passage after a rough reception by Democrats, the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday scotched from the lobbying reform bill a two-year moratorium on lobbying by former lawmakers and staff.

The move came on a day when the panel also sidestepped or rejected several other proposals meant to beef up the bill, including a hotly disputed call to force lobbyists conducting grass-roots campaigns to register.

In what some reform advocates called a prearranged swap for ditching the revolving-door restriction, the panel separately approved a measure forcing lobbyists to disclose campaign checks they arrange and then deliver to candidates. That proposal, authored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), is expected to be offered as an amendment to the broader reform package once it hits the House floor next week.

The revolving-door provision — which would have doubled the current one-year ban on direct lobbying by people fresh off of Capitol Hill — caused considerable heartburn throughout the Democratic Caucus this week, prompting fears in leadership that the provision could sink the entire bill.

Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) said lawmakers from both parties told him even the more basic provision included in the Democrats’ draft bill would make it difficult to “attract and retain top-flight staff.” The panel adopted the change, dropping the two-year moratorium on a voice vote after minimal debate.

Reform advocates said they were surprised and disappointed by the move. They said even the two-year cooling-off period didn’t go far enough. As late as yesterday, they were shopping for a Judiciary member to propose broadening the scope of banned activity to include backroom strategizing.

“I’m very disappointed,” Craig Holman of Public Citizen said after the committee session. “We have a ways to go yet. This bill is not impressive.” He said he would reserve final judgment on the bill, holding out hope the revolving-door provision, and others, will be added on the floor.

Other top priorities for reform groups met a similar fate. An effort by Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) to force disclosures from lobbyists hired to stir grass-roots contact with Congress slammed into a wall of bipartisan opposition after a coalition of nonprofit advocacy groups — including the National Right to Life Committee, the National Rifle Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union — mobilized a vigorous campaign to defeat it. They argued it would squelch free speech. Conyers sided with most of the panel in opposition, calling the plan tantamount to censorship.

The committee also rejected an attempt to ban lobbyists from sponsoring lavish parties for lawmakers at the national conventions.

After concerns were raised about his phrasing, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) agreed to withdraw his pitch to close a loophole exempting lobbyists for public universities and state and local governments from the gift ban.

Panel members exempted 501(c) groups from a new rule that requires stealth lobbying coalitions to disclose their membership. And they added a requirement that lobbyists disclose any contributions to the independent political groups known as 527s.

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