Congress Unlikely to Move on Trump Ethics Plan

Lobbyists, government overhaul groups say proposals are about politics

Republican Donald Trump, center, has attacked the political culture in Washington throughout his presidential campaign. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Republican Donald Trump, center, has attacked the political culture in Washington throughout his presidential campaign. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 18, 2016 at 12:33pm

Donald Trump’s new proposals to overhaul government ethics and lobbying regulations aim to boost the Republican presidential candidate with voters — but are unlikely to become law.

Drawing on well-worn lines of political attack that have been used for decades, Trump focused on K Street in a speech Monday night. The GOP nominee called for restrictions on lobbying by lawmakers and executive branch officials after they leave government service, and for new bans on political money from lobbyists who represent foreign governments.

“He’s diagnosed the problem correctly,” said David Donnelly, president of the campaign finance overhaul group Every Voice, who blasted Trump’s recent rhetoric of casting U.S. elections as rigged. “But the solutions he offers just don’t get to the heart of the problem. Every day, elected officials and candidates have to seek money from wealthy people, and money is poured into super PACs. It goes way beyond lobbyists on K Street.”

Trump, in announcing his ethics and lobbying proposals, blasted his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as too cozy with special interests. She has received campaign donations from lobbyists.

In addition, her presidential campaign has reported nearly $7 million in contributions bundled by lobbyists, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Another committee, the Hillary Victory Fund, run jointly by Clinton’s campaign and national and state parties, separately reported almost $20 million bundled from lobbyists.

The Republican’s campaign has reported no lobbyist bundlers and only minimal contributions from K Street, the data show. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was once a registered lobbyist and had to leave the campaign after an Associated Press report about his undisclosed lobbying work for foreign interests. 

In another proposal, Trump pledged to reinstitute a five-year ban on executive branch officials from lobbying — something Bill Clinton instituted in his presidency and then rolled back as he left office. 

Trump also said he would ask Congress to put in place a five-year ban on lobbying for lawmakers and their aides after they leave Capitol Hill. Currently, senators face a two-year ban on lobbying Congress, while House members and senior congressional aides cannot lobby Capitol Hill for one year after leaving the government.

“They all come up with things like that as we get closer to the election,” said Trump supporter Van Hipp Jr., chairman of the lobbying firm American Defense International. “It’s that time of the season.”

Closing loopholes

Trump also said he would “expand the definition so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisers when we all know they are lobbyists.”
An individual must register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act if he or she makes more than one contact with someone specified under the law — such as a lawmaker, Capitol Hill aide or senior executive branch officials. In addition, to meet the definition of a lobbyist, the person must spend at least 20 percent of his or her time for each client on lobbying activities. 

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Former lawmakers who join lobbying firms, such as the recent move of ex-Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio to Squire Patton Boggs, often say they offer clients strategic advice and avoid registering as lobbyists because they do not meet the reporting threshold.

In a rarity this election cycle, Trump’s lobbying and ethics ideas won support from Sen. Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican who has declined to support his party’s presidential nominee.

Trump, Sasse tweeted, “is making a serious ethics reform proposal here. All five points have merit and are worthy of debate / consideration.”

Closing the 20 percent lobbying loophole, or at least shrinking it substantially, is something that many registered lobbyists say they’d support.

“I’d welcome the opportunity to have a conversation on these issues with anyone, including any incoming president, or any current president or member of Congress,” said Paul Miller, a lobbyist with Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies and a founder of the National Institute For Lobbying & Ethics, which itself plans to unveil proposals to overhaul lobbying regulations early next year. 

But, Miller said, he questioned the constitutionality of some of Trump’s ideas regarding political donations and said it seemed that the real estate mogul and reality TV star was pandering to populist-leaning voters who fueled his rise during the GOP primary.

“We’ll have reasonable and fair proposals,” Miller said of his organization’s forthcoming ideas.

Democratic ideas

He said a five-year ban on lobbying, especially for congressional aides, would make it more difficult for lawmakers to attract staff and would be a nonstarter for many in office.

Some of Trump’s lobbying and ethics proposals are similar to those from Senate Democrats including one provision by Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado that would require individuals to register under the law if they make two or more lobbying contacts over a two-year period, regardless of whether the individual spends more than 20 percent of his or her time serving the particular client.

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If Democrats win control of the Senate, Donnelly noted, they could revamp the chamber’s rules to implement such measures even if the House did not go along. “It’s possible they extend the definition of lobbying as it applies to their members,” he said.

Politically, Donnelly said, Clinton will need to respond to Trump’s money and influence proposals. “She actually has an incredibly strong platform when it comes to money and politics,” he said.

He pointed to Clinton’s support for an executive order that would require more disclosure of political money from government contractors as an example.  She has also endorsed legislation that would impose new restrictions on bonuses for Wall Street executives who go to work for the government. 

Banning registered lobbyists from serving in the executive branch without a waiver, as is President Barack Obama’s policy, does not necessarily clear up the problem, Donnelly added.