House OKs tougher rules for lobbyists

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The House approved an overhaul of lobbying rules yesterday aimed at reining in the influence of special interests and fulfilling a Democratic campaign pledge to "drain the swamp" of scandals.

The measure would require lobbyists to disclose campaign contributions that they raise from clients, friends and relatives - a priority of government watchdogs who want to illuminate the shadowy world of Washington's lobbyists.

But lawmakers balked at limiting their own ability to cash in on lucrative lobbying jobs after leaving Congress. They declined to extend to two years the current one-year ban that prevents defeated or retired lawmakers from lobbying their former colleagues.

"This is a solid first step toward changing business as usual in Washington, but more reform is needed," said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause.

The House measure must now be reconciled with a Senate bill that was approved in January. One provision common to both bills is a requirement for lobbyists to more frequently disclose their activities.

Democrats said the measure, combined with new rules that the House adopted earlier this year, demonstrates their commitment to a higher ethical standard. In January, the House banned lobbyist-paid gifts, meals and travel, and required lawmakers to disclose their role in earmarking funds for projects.

"In the last election, the American people sent Congress a very strong and unambiguous message that's it time to change the way Washington does business," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

The bill would require lobbyists to disclose the projects they are seeking to insert into bills. It would prohibit lobbyists who join congressional staffs from any official contact with their former employees for a year.

Lawmakers would be required to disclose negotiations for post-congressional employment and recuse themselves from working on legislation in which a prospective employer has an interest. The measure also would prohibit a lawmaker's spouse who becomes a lobbyist after the lawmaker's election from lobbying the spouse's office.

It would increase fines from $50,000 to $100,000 for violations and add a new criminal penalty of up to five years in prison for a lobbyist who "knowingly and corruptly" violates the rules.

And it would bar lawmakers from attempting to pressure businesses into hiring lobbyists based on their political affiliation - a practice promoted by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, and others who sought to strong-arm lobbying firms into hiring Republicans.

The bill grew out of scandals that have sent one-time lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Republican congressmen Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio to prison. Members of both parties remain under scrutiny.

It was approved 396-22, with 210 Democrats and 186 Republicans voting for it. Voting no were 15 Democrats and seven Republicans.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat and one of the dissenters, said it was "just scratching at the surface of a problem that we must fix ... too much money in campaigns."

Government watchdog groups cheered the requirement for lobbyists to report the donations they collect from employees, clients and others, a practice known as bundling. A major source of influence, bundling allows lobbyists to raise large amounts for a candidate but escape scrutiny because each contribution is reported individually.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said that passage of the bundling disclosure requirement - which was approved separately by a vote of 382-37 - showed that recorded votes are the "best friend of reform."

Democratic leaders worked hard to overcome resistance within their own ranks to the bundling disclosure requirement. Some Democrats worried it would hamper fundraising at a time when it is likely to pick up for Democrats because of the party's new majority status.

But Democratic leaders, already facing criticism for refusing to extend the ban on former lawmakers lobbying one-time colleagues, argued that it would hurt the party's effort to portray itself as the party of reform if they omitted the bundling disclosure requirement.

Watchdog groups said Congress still needs to do more, such as create an independent office to oversee congressional ethics. Democrats said they are studying the idea.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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