Lobbyist Group Backs Raising Accountability Standards

Posted April 9, 2012 at 5:12pm

After 15 months of internal debate, the American League of Lobbyists has proposed a package of ethics reforms that would dramatically expand the number of lobbyists who would be required to register and report their activities.

“We want to increase transparency and accountability of all those who are engaged in public policy advocacy,” the organization’s president, Howard Marlowe, said in a conference call with reporters today.

Marlowe spoke minutes after the ALL board unanimously approved the recommendations, culminating an exhaustive effort that started with an ad hoc working group and included multiple meetings with lobbyists, lawmakers, academics and legal experts.

League officials next week will start shopping the package to House and Senate leaders and Congressional committees. If approved, the reforms would dramatically lower the Lobbying Disclosure Act’s threshold for registration and eliminate exemptions for state and local governments and religious organizations. It also would shift enforcement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington to the Department of Justice and make federal officials who lobby Congress to register under the lobbying act.

Conspicuously missing is any plan to address lobbyist campaign contributions, which Marlowe said last fall was on the working group’s agenda. Instead, the league issued a statement that its members “recognize the widespread public concerns over the increasing amounts of campaign contributions that are being solicited and raised by federal candidates.”

The American Bar Association last fall approved a resolution that would also expand registration and disclosure requirements and impose a two-year “cooling off” period on lobbyists making campaign contributions to lawmakers. The lobbyist league views such curbs on contributions as unconstitutional and wants to come up with something that is “constitutional and is achievable,” Marlowe said.

The league working group will take up campaign financing proposals with Members of Congress, Marlowe said, noting that public concerns have hurt approval ratings for both lobbyists and lawmakers. Among the issues on the table is “how much of a wall exists between campaign fundraising and the legislative process,” he added.

While the ALL recommendations propose tougher rules for lobbyists, they also take aim at executive branch lobbying restrictions that have been an ongoing issue between lobbyists and the Obama administration. Rules that apply only to registered lobbyists “should either be removed or rewritten to apply equally to all citizens, companies, associations and other organizations,” according to an ALL summary.

The ALL plan would require thousands of advocacy professionals who play the influence game while evading disclosure to register as lobbyists, Marlowe said. Under the proposal, any outside lobbyist who has one contact per quarter with a covered official would be required to register. In-house lobbyists who spend 10 percent of their time lobbying and have one contact with a covered official per quarter would have to register, down from 20 percent and two contacts under the current rules.

“We would change the current definition of a lobbyist to provide far fewer loopholes for outside consultants,” Marlowe said. The plan also would harmonize clashing definitions of “lobbying” in the Lobbying Disclosure Act and the Internal Revenue Code, which require both taxable and tax-exempt groups to track their lobbying costs. It would require lobbyists to register after 20 days instead of 45 as under the LDA. It would also require ethics training for lobbyists.

Marlowe acknowledged that “the changes won’t happen this year,” given the legislative calendar. But he said the league’s board and members will be persuading lawmakers to take up their package in the way they know best: through sustained lobbying.