House passes lukewarm lobbying reform

Legislation to change congressional relations with lobbyists, after surviving two near-death experiences in the House, moves on to what could be difficult negotiations with the Senate.

The GOP-crafted bill approved 217-213 by the House on Wednesday requires lobbyists to file reports of their activities more frequently, obliges lawmakers to get approval before going on privately sponsored travel and takes away the pensions of lawmakers convicted of bribery.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said he would appoint House negotiators as early as next week as congressional leaders press to cleanse the scandal-soiled reputation of their institution before the fall elections.

“The sooner the better,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, on his preferences for getting a lobbying and ethics overhaul bill through Congress.

The White House said that “strengthening the ethical standards that govern lobbying activities is a necessary step” in upholding the public trust. The Bush administration also supported language in the House bill that would shed more light on earmarks, or pet projects inserted into legislation.

Nineteen Republicans joined all but eight Democrats in opposing the legislation, generally on the grounds that it was too weak to correct the political climate that spawned the influence-peddling scandal of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I’ve been this past week,” Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a proponent of stronger reform, said at an earlier news conference. “I don’t think Republicans invented corruption, but we’re in charge.”

Democrats offered an alternative that would have extended the current one-year freeze for ex-members becoming lobbyists, banned gifts and travel from lobbyists and changed House rules they consider undemocratic. It lost by a 216-213 margin.

The GOP leadership had another close call last week on a 216-207 vote to set the rules of debate for the lobbying bill. A defeat on that vote, which would have killed the bill, was averted only after a last-minute compromise with Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee on the issue of earmarks, often with the help of lobbyists.

The appropriators balked at a provision that requires lists of all earmarks and their sponsors in appropriation bills but not other legislation. They agreed to let the bill go forward only after the GOP leaders promised that in the final House-Senate bill the disclosure requirement would be expanded.

House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chief sponsor of the bill, said that while the measure could be stronger, it was “a vast improvement over the status quo.” He said that with the GOP-led Congress facing a full plate of issues such as high gas prices, “for the American people to have confidence in us is a prerequisite.”

But there are some significant differences with the Senate bill.

The Senate bans gifts and meals from lobbyists and extends to two years, from the current one, the period a retiring member must wait before taking a job lobbying Congress.

It also requires professional lobbyists to disclose their activities in grassroots lobbying, where members of the public are encouraged to contact their representatives through phone calls or television ads.

There are some similarities.

Both bills require lobbyists to file reports four times a year, up from the current twice a year; ban lobbyists from accompanying members on privately sponsored trips; and require lawmakers to disclose job negotiations that may pose a conflict of interest.

The House bill sets spending limits on nonprofit political groups known as 527s _ named after the section of tax law that covers them. These groups tended to back Democrats in the 2004 presidential election, and Senate Democrats have said they will oppose any lobbying bill that includes the campaign finance measure.

Senate Democrats were quick to criticize the House bill. “The House has passed a shell of a lobbying reform bill unworthy of the name ‘reform,'” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who helped steer the Senate bill to a bipartisan 90-8 vote in late March.

“Instead of passing a tough bill like we did,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Republicans “filled it with partisan campaign finance measures that are intended to help them in the coming election.”

House Democrats did join Republicans in approving one amendment, offered by Reps. Don Lungren, R-Calif., and George Miller, D-Calif., that permits privately sponsored travel with approval beforehand by two-thirds of the ethics committee. The measure also requires the committee to come up with recommendations on a permanent travel policy by June 15.

The original bill put a temporary ban, until the end of this year, on all privately funded travel, but many members protested that this would prevent them from participating in worthwhile seminars.


On the Net:

Information on the bill, H.R. 4975, can be found at

© 2006 The Associated Press