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House Lobby Bill May Fail in Vote This Week

Correction Appended

After stripping a key reform from their lobbying rules overhaul, House Democrats hope to finally wrap up work on the long-stalled measure this week, but face uncertain odds.

Party leaders are still trying to quell concern among their own about forcing lobbyists to disclose the campaign checks they bundle for candidates. They won support for that measure last week by agreeing to scrap a piece of the reform bill doubling to two years the cooling-off period for Congressional operatives-turned-lobbyists.

Now, Democratic leaders must convince their Caucus to follow through and add the bundling disclosure requirement to the broader bill. A vote is tentatively scheduled for Thursday.

“With so much negotiating going on, it’s unclear what’s going to happen,” said a Democratic source . “We’re holding out hope that the final deal is one everyone can support.”

The major hurdle Democrats must clear will be a vote on the rule governing debate, which is likely to call for a vote on adding the bundling measure as an amendment to the package. Some sources close to Democratic leadership said worry persists that enough Democrats — mainly from the Blue Dog Coalition and the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses — will break ranks on the rule to sink the bill. The thinking goes that if the rule passes, Democrats will fall in line when they have to vote on the amendment itself.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee approved the bundling proposal as a stand-alone measure on a voice vote, with only Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) appearing to oppose it.

The Senate included a more broadly drawn version of the provision in its reform package earlier this year. But the plan generated static on and off Capitol Hill as the debate moved to the House. The American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers’ lobby, and many senior Democratic K Streeters quietly lodged concerns with leaders. So did minority caucuses and the conservative Blue Dogs.

“Many of these Members don’t have constituents who can write them $2,000 checks,” said Paul Braithwaite, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus now with the Podesta Group. “Most of the money they raise is going to be outside their districts. And while they may not be opposed to bundling disclosure in theory, if they’re basically cutting off a source of fundraising dollars for their potential re-elections, they’re voting to harm themselves, and nobody is going to do that.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who also heads the House Democrats’ campaign arm, took the lead in the past several months trying to craft a narrower version of the Senate language that would fly in his chamber.

The result, which he introduced last week, would require lobbyists to disclose in quarterly reports checks they arrange for a candidate totaling more than $5,000. The contributions would qualify both if the lobbyist physically gathered them and handed them over to the campaign or if the lobbyist got credit for them “through records, designations, recognitions or other means of tracking” by the campaign. Within 25 days of filing the report, the lobbyist would have to notify the campaign.

To clear up confusion about the measure — for example, that the bill would ban the practice outright, instead of simply requiring disclosure of it — Van Hollen personally explained the measure to the Caucus last week.

But concerns remain. One Blue Dog aide said members of that group were considering voting against the rule on the lobbying bill if it allows a vote on the bundling measure. And the AAJ is still opposed.

The group, a top source of political cash for Democrats, believes the measure would impose an impossible disclosure standard: requiring the group to keep track of and report contributions generated through mass appeals to its tens of thousands of members. “We agree that if the law required us to report contributions that we collected and then forwarded to a campaign, that’s good government,” AAJ spokesman Bill Schulz said. “But as we understand it, the Van Hollen amendment would criminalize our simply advocating that a member of our organization contribute, that member doing so, and us not knowing about it.”

Outside reform advocates quietly swallowed the scuttling of the revolving-door provision last week. But they are drawing the line at the bundling language. “Without bundling, this bill will be only marginally — and I mean marginally — better than what the Republicans passed last year, and that was a bad bill,” said Gary Kalman, of U.S. PIRG.

Meanwhile, experts say elements of the base bill also may cause an unintentional and expensive administrative nightmare for the Federal Election Commission and the Secretary of the Senate, which would be tasked with tediously linking contributions to Senate campaign finance records.

But there’s more. Unlike presidential and House candidates, Senators and their challengers do not file easily parsed electronic versions of their campaigns’ accounting records; they file reams — sometimes boxes — of actual paper, which would have to be scanned and each of the perhaps hundreds of thousands of individual gifts hand coded.

“The Secretary of the Senate and the FEC are going to be wasting huge amounts of money and time in trying to cross link these two things,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.

Kappel and Corey Rubin, a lawyer with Kelley, Drye & Warren, agree that such requirements could be an additional headache for the already resource-strapped FEC, which is heading into its high season. Even with vastly expanded resources, Rubin said agency and Senate staff would be unable to synchronize contributions with any precision.

“It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the lobbying disclosure database to link directly to FEC information regarding specific contributions simply because … the FEC does not take any of that data and translate it into electronic data,” Rubin said. “The most the disclosure database would be able to do would be to link … with the PDF of the specific report … perhaps even the PDF of a specific page on which a contribution is made.”

Although the FEC declined to comment on the matter, Rubin said agency officials privately grumble about the possibility of the provision, as long as Senate candidates are not required to file electronic versions of their campaign finance records.

As of press time, one or more unnamed Senate Republicans still objected to a bill that would remove the chamber’s exemption from electronic filing requirements.

It is unclear what other amendments lawmakers might offer. Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) saw two of his proposals — one requiring lobbyists who stir up grass-roots campaigns to register, the other banning lobbyists from sponsoring lavish parties at national party conventions — soundly rejected by the Judiciary panel last week.

A group of freshman Democrats is expected to propose creating an independent enforcement office to replace the ethics committee.

Correction: May 21, 2007
The article incorrectly stated that a bundling disclosure provision that will be considered as an add-on to a lobbying reform bill could cause an administrative headache for the Federal Election Commission and the Secretary of the Senate. In fact, experts assert the problem could arise from a provision, already in the base bill, that will require cross-linking lobbyists’ direct contributions to Senate candidates with the candidates’ FEC filings.

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