Washington lobbyists are gearing up to make their cases to Congress this fall for lobbying reform. With several proposals crafted or in the works, including one on Capitol Hill, it looks as though they’ll have a lot to discuss.
In June, Rep. Michael Quigley (D-Ill.) offered legislation that would make several amendments to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which was last updated in 2007. The measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), is based on government transparency legislation Quigley introduced during the last Congress.
The legislation would require individuals to register with Congress as lobbyists if they make more than one lobbying contact on behalf of a client. Currently, registration only is required for individuals who meet certain monetary compensation thresholds for advocacy work, make more than one lobbying contact and spend at least 20% of their time during a quarterly period lobbying the federal government on behalf of a client.
The bill would direct lobbyists to register online with the House and Senate within five days of when a client is first retained or they make a second lobbying contact on behalf of a client, whichever is earliest. Under existing law, lobbyists must register within 45 days of whichever condition is met first.
Another provision would mandate that lobbyists disclose offices, but not the staffers, they lobbied, and when the lobbying occurred. Under current law, lobbyists only have to report what chamber of Congress or federal agency they lobby. The bill — the only federal lobbying reform legislation introduced so far this year — would make lobbyists report quarterly instead of semiannually on political contributions they make.
Finally, the measure would require that notifications regarding alleged noncompliance with lobbying disclosure law go to the U.S. attorney general, as opposed to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. The attorney general would be required to create a task force that would investigate and prosecute the cases, disclose information on Lobbying Disclosure Act enforcement, regularly report on how lobbyists comply with the law and start a toll-free telephone number and online platform for members of the public to report noncompliance.
Quigley, a co-founder of the House Transparency Caucus, said the word lobbyist isn’t inherently bad. But government transparency is vital, he said.
“Trust in government is at an all-time low, and the way to win it back is through open, honest government,” the lawmaker said in a written statement.
It seems clear that at least some D.C. lobbyists will be lining up against Quigley’s bill. Paul Miller, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the legislation would place unnecessary burdens on lobbying firms to disclose information that he says isn’t “striking.”
“At the end of the day, you’re just pushing paper and nothing is going to be accomplished,” said Miller, who predicted the bill won’t be moving forward any time soon.
This summer, the American Bar Association offered its own recommendations on how to reform the Lobbying Disclosure Act, some of which are similar to Quigley’s proposal. The American League of Lobbyists is working on its own reform proposals. Its suggestions are slated for release in September.
The ABA House of Delegates on Aug. 8 passed a resolution that called upon Congress to narrow the Lobbying Disclosure Act language dictating the conditions under which a lobbyist must register.
The organization doesn’t say exactly what Congress should do, other than create “reasonable threshold limitations” and try to avoid bringing “undue financial burdens on small entities.”
The measure urges Congress to require that lobbyists be more specific about whom they lobby. The resolution recommends that lobbyists report all contacts they have with congressional offices and committees, in addition to federal agencies and offices.
Another provision in the ABA’s resolution calls for lobbyists and their clients to reveal in their quarterly reports any participation in lobbying support activities, including coalition building, polling, strategy and public relations work. The measure further urges Congress to make lobbyists report who was principally involved in the lobbying support efforts and the names of individuals who are former high-level U.S. government officials and had some role in the activities.
The ABA recommends that Congress bar lobbyists from approaching a member of Congress for whom they raised campaign funds during the past two years or do fundraising for a member of Congress whom they lobbied during the past two years.
Thomas Susman, the ABA governmental affairs director, said his association has started to reach out to members of Congress about their recommendations and is trying to craft legislation out of its proposals. But he said big legislative developments this year on lobbying reform are unlikely. “It’s going to be a slow, incremental process,” Susman said.
Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said in a formal statement earlier this month that his group supports many of the ABA’s suggestions. But he said some of them — mostly the suggestions concerning fundraising — “are inadequate or not workable.”
Susman, who is a member of the league, said the lobbyists group’s opposition isn’t surprising. He said the group fights against what it perceives as an uneven playing field for lobbyists. “I don’t think [the league's proposal] is going to be a hollow report,” Susman said. “But all organizations have to represent their constituents.”
Former league president Miller declined to give specifics regarding the reform proposals that he and about a half-dozen of the association’s members started working on during the spring. But he said they would be “sweeping.”
Miller said the league is looking to “close all the loopholes.” And he said he expects people to be surprised by what the organization recommends.
“We’re going to make our own membership mad,” he said.
William Minor, a DLA Piper Washington partner who counsels clients on disclosure law, said lobbyists are open to reform. Existing lobbying statutes and policies create “an often confusing patchwork of requirements,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I think all who lobby and who advise lobbyists on compliance welcome efforts to bring some certainty to the laws in this area.”
Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.