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.

By , Staff writer

Democrats gained control of the House and Senate in November on a promise to end the war in Iraq and clean up Congress.

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.

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"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.

These include:

• 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.

Other avenues of influence include paying for conferences or retreats held by lawmakers, or contributing to foundations or other entities designated by members of Congress – or even named after members.

Lobbyists must disclose role

Under the terms of the House bill, those practices would change. Lobbyists could still bundle contributions, but now they would have to disclose themselves as the bundler of donations totaling more than $5,000 in a quarter, as well as give the names of their employers. Lobbyists also must certify that they have not given gifts to any member of Congress in violation of House or Senate rules.

The fact that this information would become available electronically is just as important as the rules changes.

"For years Congress has been putting out information about itself, but constituents back home don't have any access to it," says Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.

The House bill would make accessible over the Internet material – such a lawmakers' travel records – now available only in binders in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building.

"By making the lobbying and travel reports available electronically, Congress is opening its doors a little more to the constituents back home," he adds. "We know from our work over 25 years that there are plenty of people interested in this."

House Democratic leaders faced stiff resistance in their own caucus over concerns that the new disclosure requirements could limit help from K Street just as those resources were beginning to shift toward members of the new majority.

In a Thursday briefing, those leaders said they were committed to changing the ways of Washington.

"In the last 40 years there have been four major elections: 1974, 1982, 1994, and 2006. In three out of the four elections, ethics and the official conduct of Washington played a major role," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois. "In two of those elections, the Congress changed hands because of it. The American people did not think that their interests and their voices had the same weight as the lobbyists and the interests that they represented."

The Senate version differs

The Senate passed its version of ethics and lobbying reform on Jan. 18. That bill prohibits senators and their staff members from accepting gifts and free meals from lobbyists and requires earmarks to be publicized 48 hours before consideration of a bill.

The Senate bill also imposes a two-year cooling-off period before ex-members can become federally registered lobbyists. House Democrats had proposed a similar two-year ban, but dropped it from the final bill.

After the Memorial Day break, House and Senate leaders will nominate negotiators to reconcile differences in the bills.

"We will get a lobbying bill sometime in the near future," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, in briefing with reporters on Friday.

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