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Any day now, the lobby reform bills passed in the House and Senate are expected to be sent to conference committee, where congressional leaders say the two remarkably different measures will be molded into a coherent, workable tough-on-lobbying law. But lobbyists are hardly sweating things. In fact, the betting money on K Street says the legislation’s move to conference is as likely to lead to its quiet demise as it is to lead to a stringent new set of lobbying rules. In the weeks after Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea at the beginning of January, public outcry over corruption and the culture of Washington caused lobby reform to move from the dead-letter office to the top of Congress’ to-do list. Four and a half months later, with gas prices spiking, Hispanic immigrants taking to the streets, and the Iraq war lingering, the public has largely forgotten about the issue, relegating lobby reform to the realm of election-year politicking. Early in the reform debate it appeared lobbyists and their wares — gifts, travel, lunches, and access — were marked for extinction. But now, as House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) hammer out which members will be named to the conference committee, the fight over the direction of the legislation is shaping up to be less about lobbyists and more about turf wars and party politics. Most illustrative of this change is what will likely be the most contentious issue the conference committee will address: regulation of 527 tax-exempt groups. “The push and pull will now all come down to the 527s,” says H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, president of Van Scoyoc Associates, of the vibes he’s been feeling in the past few weeks. Language that would make the now-unregulated organizations subject to tighter controls was piggybacked onto legislation the House passed earlier this month. It was not, however, a feature of the Senate’s lobby reform bill, passed in March. A contingent of House Republicans, led by Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), pushed hard to rein in the organizations, which fall outside the purview of current campaign finance laws and direct significantly more money to Democratic candidates than to Republicans. Depending on one’s perspective — or party affiliation — it’s the 527 issue that could prove to be the stumbling block to lobby reform’s passage, or provide a convenient excuse for its failure.
• Lobby Reform Snags on Earmark Spat (May 1, 2006)• Lobbying Revenue Streams Growing Wider (March 20, 2006)• Lobby Reform Could Spark Brain Drain (March 6, 2006)• K Street Takes Pass on Reform (February 27, 2006)• Grass-Roots Groups Anxious (February 13, 2006)• The Latest Line on Lobbying Reform (February 13, 2006)• K Street Quiet on Reforms — For Now (January 23, 2006)• K Street Mulls Jack Factor (January 9, 2006)

“While Congress would love to be able to say �We did something,’ it’s not clear that the Democrats wouldn’t do better with [unresolved lobby reform] as a campaign issue,” says Thomas Susman, a partner at Ropes & Gray and chair of the ethics committee of the American League of Lobbyists. “[Democrats] certainly would rather have the campaign issue than one that undermines the financing of Democratic issues.” Lawmakers’ near-universal public proclamations extolling the need for lobby reform contradict a political reality: Passage of lobby reform legislation could cut against both parties’ interests, leaving little incentive for either party to make progress. “Everybody has concluded that it’s not needed,” says the head of one lobby practice who asked to remain unidentified. “If Republicans aren’t hearing about this [as an election issue], I don’t see it happening,” he prognosticates. House Republicans, whose legislation squeaked by in a largely party-line 217-213 vote, are most alarmed by provisions in the House and Senate bills that would put earmarks under the microscope, endangering the appropriations fiefdoms that are a perk of being in the majority party. Democrats, for their part, stand to gain little from allowing the Republicans to trumpet any achievements in the run-up to the November elections. The political debates overshadow what was once thought to be a bipartisan complaint: the behavior of lobbyists. And even here there is little comity between the two chambers. The Senate bill cracks down far harder on the goodies lobbyists bestow on lawmakers, banning all lobbyist-bought gifts, meals, and tickets. The House version doesn’t address the issue, effectively leaving the existing $50 cap in place. Another major sticking point figures to be the treatment of grass-roots lobbyists. The Senate bill calls for them to be brought under the same regime as their alligator-shoe-leather brethren, whereas the House bill ignores them. The Senate measure would also double from one year to two the so-called cooling-off period in which lawmakers and some staffers are forbidden from lobbying after leaving Congress. But if the bill does manage to escape from the conference committee alive, the few similar provisions contained in both bills are likely to survive. For example, both would require lobbyists to file reports quarterly, rather than twice a year, and direct lawmakers to receive pre-approval for privately funded travel. The politicization of the process, and the watered-down House bill, have effectively reversed the roles of lobbyists and lobby critics, though both now agree that strong reforms are not going to happen. Many lobbyists say they’re now tuning the debate out, while lobby critics are livid. “It’s a total fraud,” says Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit critical of money in politics. “It’s very hard to see how you could combine the two into anything meaningful.” Meanwhile, lobbyists’ fear factor has dropped greatly from its February highs: “I think in my head I’ve sort of gotten to this place where I don’t see anything substantive happening,” says the head of the lobby practice. “I’m not worried about it.”

Andy Metzger can be contacted at [email protected].

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