Lobbying Reform Passes House on Unanimous Vote
Acting on a reform measure that hits painfully close to home for them, members of the House voted unanimously Wednesday to shine more light on the lobbyists who labor behind the scenes in Congress and on the causes that they promote.
Rejecting amendments that could have killed the legislation, House members voted, 421 to 0, to send to President Clinton a bill identical to one passed by the Senate last summer. Clinton has said he will sign it into law.
The legislation calls for a sweeping overhaul of the mishmash of largely unenforceable regulations covering the conduct of lobbyists. It provides the first practical definition of lobbyists--those who spend at least one-fifth of their time trying to influence federal decisions--and would require them to register with Congress.
Companion legislation was passed earlier this month by the House. It would ban lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists or others seeking political favor. The two bills complete a campaign promise of House freshmen who came to Washington pledging to restructure the way government business is conducted and to convince skeptical voters that Congress can eliminate what many see as conflicts of interest between lawmakers and their wealthy benefactors. Lobbyists not only contribute to congressional campaigns, they also try to exert influence by helping congressmen raise money and entertaining lawmakers with retreats and junkets.
“This goes to the concern of the American people that unseen forces” operate in Congress, Rep. John Bryant (D-Tex.) said of the bill. “Congress will no longer be wined and dined, and these forces will no longer be unseen.”
Backers of the legislation deflected what they saw as a potentially fatal blow when several members backed away from offering amendments to require a Senate-House conference to work out difference between versions of the legislation. Supporters feared that a conference could have bottled up the legislation, as happened to similar bills last year, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) led parliamentary wrangling that killed them. Many lawmakers, who do not want to be on record as opposed to lobbying reform, would be happy to see it die in conference committee.
If the bill went to conference committee, “we might never have seen this legislation again,” said Kathryn Hazeem, chief legal adviser to the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), in debate on the House floor, labeled any effort to add amendments “a ruse to kill the bill.”
The legislation approved Wednesday broadens the term lobbyist to include anyone who spends at least one-fifth of his or her work time engaged in meeting or attempting to influence federal policy-makers or their aides or in conducting research on issues before Congress. The bill exempts any individual spending less than $5,000 on lobbying or any organization spending less than $20,000 in six months.
Nonprofit groups that lobby the government would be barred from receiving federal grants. Former U.S. trade representatives or their deputies would be prohibited for life from lobbying Congress on behalf of foreign concerns.
All persons or groups engaged in lobbying activities would be required to register with Congress and to provide semiannual disclosures showing who their clients are, what policies they are trying to influence and roughly how much money they are spending for lobbying. Failure to meet the disclosure requirements could result in civil fines of as much as $50,000. Under existing law, noncompliance with lobbying laws is rarely punished.
Clinton, who was traveling in London, issued a statement praising the legislation as a way to “help change the way Washington does business.”
“For too long, Washington’s influence industry has operated out of the sunlight of public scrutiny,” he said. “Lobby reform will be good for American democracy and will help restore the trust of the people in their government.”
Wright Andrews, president of the American League of Lobbyists, hailed the legislation as “a very reasonable, workable bill.” He predicted that the public will have a more positive image of lobbyists when their work is in the open.
“Because the average person doesn’t understand the valuable work that lobbyists do, they often have a very negative stereotype of what they do,” Andrews said. “People would feel a little better about us if they understood who is paying us to do what we are doing. We don’t have a problem with that.”
Andrews predicted that more than 60% of the lobbyists who do not register now will do so if the bill becomes law. He noted that a 1991 General Accounting Office study found that fewer than 4,000 lobbyists were registered with Congress but more than 13,500 were listed in a directory of those doing business in Washington.