House votes for a clearer lens on campaign donations
A bill approved Thursday requires new disclosure of lobbyists' role in 'bundling' checks from many contributors, destined for lawmakers' war chests.
Democrats gained control of the House and Senate in November on a promise to end the war in Iraq and clean up Congress.Skip to next paragraph
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Both are proving to be harder than they might have looked. In back-to-back votes, the House gave President Bush the funds he requested to continue the war for the rest of this fiscal year, through September, and approved a lobbying reform that was weaker than Democrats had pledged at the start of the 110th Congress.
While antiwar groups expressed their dismay over the war-funding vote, public-interest groups praised the big margin of victory for the lobbying and disclosure overhaul, which passed 382 to 37. The reform legislation could get even stronger, they add, after negotiations with the Senate.
"The hotly contested lobbying bill the House passed today is a major achievement toward ethics reform, but there are significant holes left to be filled," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, in a statement after Thursday's vote.
At the heart of the reform are expanded disclosure requirements for federally registered lobbyists, including the campaign contributions they "bundle" for candidates and lawmakers. These disclosures would have to be expedited – filed quarterly and electronically instead of semiannually and, in the Senate, on paper.
Many lawmakers were reluctant
No issue is more charged for members of Congress than restrictions on money for campaigns, and House Democrats had to beat back opposition within their own ranks to disclosure requirements that might rein in funds from the K Street lobby firms.
Freshmen Democrats, many of whom campaigned on a pledge to end the "culture of corruption" in Washington, joined with Republicans to pass measures on the House floor to strengthen the reform.
• Closing a loophole that exempted state and local governments and public universities from lobbyist regulations.
• Requiring that lobbyists disclose their requests for earmarks, or special projects, in spending bills.
• Disclosing contributions given to candidates' political action committees as well as their campaigns.
"What we achieved was substantially new information required to be disclosed now by lobbyists," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group that works to improve the integrity of government and elections.
For example, all individuals are limited by law to donating no more than $2,300 to any one candidate's primary campaign and no more than $2,300 for his or her general election campaign. But many lobbyists, as well as others, also collect contributions from multiple individuals – a practice called "bundling" – and deliver the entire amount for a candidate's war chest. The donors are identified publicly, but the bundlers currently are not. Critics say the practice allows the bundlers to acquire undue influence over lawmakers. The process is so well-established in Washington that individuals even include a "code" on their checks to signal to politicians who has directed the contribution.