WASHINGTON – Lobbying legislation is heading to a House vote this week without provisions requiring lobbyists to keep track of their contacts with lawmakers and report fundraising activities. Democrats and activist groups say the bill is now too weak to change the money culture in Washington.
"They took an already unacceptable bill and turned it into a charade," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, one of the groups pushing for major changes in the way lawmakers interact with wealthy lobbyists.
With opinions divided over the effectiveness of the House bill, the vote scheduled for Thursday is likely to be far closer than the 90-8 vote in the Senate last month on another version.
The bills follow the scandals involving disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who was convicted of taking bribes from defense contractors.
The House bill would suspend privately funded travel for lawmakers through the end of this year, require lobbyists to file more frequent reports on their activities, require lawmakers to inform the ethics committee of any job negotiations that could pose a conflict of interest, and forfeit the retirement benefits of lawmakers convicted of bribery.
But the bill that the Rules Committee is expected to send to the House floor also would scale back several new disclosure provisions, including those requiring lobbyists to report on any fundraising events they host or details on their contacts with members of Congress.
Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., wanted to ensure that the bill did not infringe on First Amendment rights to petition the government, said his spokeswoman, Jo Maney.
Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, welcomed the change, saying the proposed rule on reporting contacts was unworkable. He asked whether lobbyists would have to report every time they greet a lawmaker in a hallway or personal meetings with lawmakers to discuss a charity basketball game they help organize. Under the new rule, he said, "I'm probably not going to do that any more."
Miller said lobbyists, who say the current system works and the Abramoff case was an aberration, were "very concerned" about the Senate bill, which bars lobbyists from giving gifts and meals to lawmakers. He praised Dreier and House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "They have at least taken a significant amount of time to talk to people on both sides."
But Wertheimer said the House GOP-backed bill would free lobbyists from reporting on the fundraising they do on behalf of lawmakers or on the lavish parties they host for members at presidential conventions and elsewhere.
Good government groups are upset with both the House and Senate bill for not including new independent entities to oversee the ethics committees in the two chambers. "It doesn't deal with the biggest problem in the House, the complete failure to have an ethics enforcement process," Wertheimer said.
The House ethics committee, torn by partisan battles, has been inactive for some 16 months. Chances on reviving the panel dimmed last week when the top Democrat, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., temporarily stepped down to deal with charges over his own financial affairs.
The Rules Committee is to decide on Wednesday what amendments will be allowed when the bill comes up for debate on Thursday. Democrats are pressing to be given a vote on their alternative, which would create an office of public integrity in the House, tighten gift and travel rules and, like the Senate bill, make lawmakers wait longer before accepting jobs as lobbyists.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, in a letter Friday to Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, said it would be "insulting to the ideals of democracy" if debate were restricted on a bill to make government more transparent.
The bill is H.R. 4975.