Elizabeth Warren’s K Street overhaul

Plan would prohibit former lawmakers and officials from lobbying, expand ‘cooling-off’ periods and more

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the Iowa State Fair in August. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the Iowa State Fair in August. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 17, 2019 at 8:30am

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who regularly blasts the lobbying and influence sector, announced a new set of proposals Monday aimed at curbing the revolving door between business and government.

She would prohibit members of Congress and other top officials from ever becoming lobbyists and would expand cooling-off periods to at least two years for lower-level officials.

[Warren backs primary challengers against sitting House Democrats]

Though her ideas to overhaul the nation’s lobbying laws make for strong campaign rhetoric that resonates with voters, many of her proposals are unlikely ever to be enacted. And if they were, they would almost certainly face court challenges.

Warren would prohibit lobbyists from donating to political campaigns or from fundraising on their behalf and would abolish the current threshold for when someone must register to lobby. Advocates currently must register as federal lobbyists and disclose their lobbying clients if they make at least one contact with a covered government official and if they spend at least 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities.

Warren’s plan would do away with that 20 percent threshold, which allows some former officials to eschew registering their work and publicly disclosing their clients.

[Retiring lawmakers will face tough market on K Street]

“That means law firms, consultancies, and even self-described lobbying firms that hire individuals for the express purpose of influencing government may be able to avoid these registration requirements — allowing powerful interests to influence policy without any public accountability,” Warren states on her presidential campaign website. “My plan brings this activity out of the shadows by strengthening the definition of a lobbyist to include all individuals paid to influence government.”

Many longtime lobbyists, such as Paul Miller, who runs the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics, have also argued for lowering the threshold, saying the current system doesn’t capture enough of the behind-the-scenes influence work that goes on in Washington, D.C. But Miller and his group have said some threshold seems necessary to avoid excessive burdens on people, such as corporate CEOs, who might come to Washington to testify once or twice but are not specifically paid to lobby.

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Miller told CQ Roll Call earlier this year that his group advocates that anyone who spends or earns more than $3,000 in a quarter from a lobbying client and spends at least 9 percent of their time advocating for an issue should be required to register as a lobbyist.

“When people aren’t registered and aren’t filling out those forms, then you’ve got more of a chance for corruption,” Miller said.

Warren’s plan also would prohibit lobbying activities on behalf of foreign governments, something that is now standard practice on K Street.

Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations at the Public Affairs Council, which represents many companies and organizations that lobby, said she found some of the proposals troubling, such as extending the bans on lobbying and lowering the threshold for what triggers a lobbying registration.

“It’s concerning to see a lot of broad-based claims being made about lobbying disclosure,” she said.

However, Brackemyre said one element of Warren’s proposal has her council’s support: boosting congressional salaries.

Warren’s proposal also includes a new tax on “excessive lobbying,” which would target K Street’s biggest spenders, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or any group or company that spends more than $500,000 per year on lobbying.

“The right to petition our government does not allow industries to exercise unlimited financial influence over policymakers,” Warren states on her presidential campaign website.

It’s not the first time Warren has called out the Chamber of Commerce, which is routinely the top spender on lobbying as disclosed in quarterly reports to the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate. Warren, along with Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, called for a probe in July of the group’s compliance with current lobbying rules.

“Efforts to stifle free speech protected under our Constitution is not a prescription for improving our democracy or solving our nation’s problems,” the chamber said in an emailed statement to CQ Roll Call.

“The U.S. Chamber complies fully with the disclosure requirements under the law created by Congress,” the chamber said in an earlier email.