The Senate, responding to public demands for restrictions on the power of special interests, voted overwhelmingly Thursday to tighten the loosely enforced laws that govern the way lobbyists do business.
"Public disgust was a welcome motivating factor," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the bill's chief sponsor. During several days of debate, he repeatedly noted that at least four previous efforts to rewrite the lobbying law had failed.
The measure was passed by the Senate as a brutal battle loomed over a far more controversial issue among lawmakers: campaign finance reform. President Clinton is expected to reveal his proposal today for revamping the way congressional candidates raise money.
The Senate vote "proves reform is possible. It does not prove reform is certain," Levin said.
Under the lobbying bill, which was approved 95 to 2, any organization earning or spending more than $5,000 on lobbying over a six-month period would be required to register with the Department of Justice. It also would be required to file reports spelling out which legislation or policy it was attempting to influence, who it was contacting and how much it was raising and spending.
The $5,000 threshold was designed to draw a distinction between lobbyists and ordinary citizens who become involved in an issue.
By some estimates, as many as 80,000 people engage in lobbying in Washington. But only about one in 10 has registered as a lobbyist under current law--in part because of the law's narrow definition of the term. It excludes contacts, for example, with congressional staff members and executive branch officials. In addition, virtually any lobbyist who is also a lawyer can claim exemption from the law.
In the House, the bill is awaiting action by a Judiciary subcommittee.
Self-proclaimed public interest groups initially criticized the bill as too limited in scope. They endorsed it warmly, however, after the Senate added an amendment proposed by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) that requires lobbyists to report all gifts valued at more than $20 to members of Congress and their staffs.
Smaller gifts also would have to be reported if they amounted to more than $50 in a year.
With the addition of that amendment, the legislation became "a strong, effective and credible bill that will bring to light the way lobbyists do business in Washington," said Ann McBride, senior vice president of Common Cause.
Yet McBride and others pointed out that the bigger fight is yet to come.
"Campaign finance is a more important issue than this. The danger is that this should not be a stalking horse for delaying campaign finance," said David Cohen, who heads the Advocacy Institute, a teaching and training organization for nonprofit public interest organizations.
Senators also approved, 98 to 1, a non-binding amendment proposed by Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) expressing their intention to severely limit gift-giving by lobbyists. The amendment envisions following Clinton Administration guidelines, which prohibit officials of the executive branch from receiving items worth more than $20 from lobbyists.
However, the Senate turned aside an effort by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to require organizations that engage in lobbying to reveal the names of their major contributors. Levin said that issue had doomed lobbying reform efforts in the past, because it would force charitable organizations and other groups to open up their donor lists, potentially discouraging contributions.