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When Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) worked as a lobbyist in the 1960s, he attended a breakfast group of about 20 lobbyists from Fortune 500 companies. They gathered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for briefings. Back then, he recalls, that group made up all the lobbyists in town. The lobbyist-turned-lawmaker stood on the Senate floor last week holding up a thick, nearly 2,000-page directory of the hundreds of lobbyists and lobby shops that work Washington today. “That little group of 20 has grown somewhat,” Bennett said jokingly. The influence of lobbyists on lawmakers is no joke to reform-minded senators, who continue to hammer out details of the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act, a measure they hope will limit unethical behavior between lawmakers and lobbyists. And travel by members paid for by lobbyists may be hit hardest. The lobby-reform legislation being debated in the Senate could bring a halt to lawmakers’ traveling sprees as Senate Democrats attempt to offer up lobby-reform legislation in sync with the tough ethics reform passed by the House two weeks ago. In addition to banning gifts and meals, the Senate is tightening its grip on how members travel and whom they travel with. The result could leave some groups that depend on that travel hanging. Groups such as the Consumer Electronics Association, which has spent thousands of dollars sending lawmakers to its events showcasing new technology, and the American Association of Airport Executives, which lobbies for airport issues before Congress, may have to cut back on trips for lawmakers.
Proposed Congressional Ethics Measures
Below are some of the highlights and differences between the most recently introduced congressional ethics reform measures. The House passed its rules changes, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, two weeks ago, while the Senate is continuing to wrangle over its own bill, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act.
Earmarks Requires disclosure of earmarks that lobbyists sought for their clients. Bans earmarks that benefit members, their families, or special interest groups.
Gifts Bans members’ receipt of gifts paid for by lobbyists and the organizations that employ them. Bans lobbyists from giving gifts to members of Congress or their staff.
Travel Requires repayment of corporate jets at charter rate. Must disclose itinerary, purpose, and all travelers. Privately funded travel limited to one-day trips and must have Ethics Committee pre-approval.
Revolving Door Extends members’ lobbying ban to two years. Former senators are banned from lobbying members. Extends members’ lobbying ban from one to two years.

Both groups, along with the American Israel Education Foundation, were among several that spent more than $50,000 on congressional travel between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, according to data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity. From his cell phone in Las Vegas, Jayson Oxman, vice president of the Consumer Electronics Association, spits out names of government officials who attended the four-day-long Consumer Electronics Show last week in Sin City, including Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.). However, new travel limitations could mean fewer lawmakers at the CEA’s annual events, where this year 2,700 companies debuted more than 20,000 new products. “There is no better place in the world where lawmakers can learn about the different products and services that consumers are going to be purchasing,” Oxman says. “We are very concerned that government leaders whose decisions will impact what technology is available to consumers and what we can do with it won’t be able to attend. Policy-makers will be left to make decisions about this significant part of our economy without seeing it up front.” Of the 100 private sponsors that spent the most on congressional travel between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, 45 had employed or retained registered lobbyists and had spent more than $1.15 million in travel expenses, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Some lobbyists believe the proposed ban on private travel would unintentionally cut into opportunities aimed at informing members of Congress about important issues. “The problem is that the purpose of the travel is to educate lawmakers about the issue at hand, whether it’s traveling to a factory or to a bridge construction site,” says Brian Pallasch, who became president of the American League of Lobbyists on Jan. 1 and is also director of government relations for the American Society of Civil Engineers. “There has and will continue to be value in lawmakers and their staff traveling to see how things work.” Between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, members of Congress and their congressional aides took more than 2,700 privately funded trips. The organizations that sponsored those trips had to foot a $54 million bill. During that same period, the offices of 10 legislators — including Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) — had privately financed travel totals exceeding $45,000, and 10 organizations sponsored more than $50,000 in trips, according to federal disclosure filings analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity. The Senate is also debating a measure that would require Ethics Committee approval before members accept trips and would ban all meals and gifts from lobbyists, a move that parallels that of the House, which two weeks ago restricted privately funded trips. Members are also calling for a full disclosure of travel and travel expenses by members and their staff who travel on noncommercial airplanes. Lawmakers will also have to disclose their travel itinerary and whom they are traveling with, and a full evaluation of tickets will be required for senators who travel to sporting and entertainment events. A measure allowing members from larger states with more rural areas access to private planes is also being debated. Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has long followed ethics reform, says the travel limitations are long overdue. “It’s going to put a crimp in the style of some of the more well-heeled organizations and trade associations,” Ornstein says. “No question about it, it’s been a really great way for lobbyists to get access that others only dream about. Getting 15 or 20 minutes in a congressman’s office is no comparison to a three- or four-hour plane ride where you can let your hair down and get comfortable.” And with the benefits some members might receive in return for that special access, Ornstein says, “I can understand why senators wouldn’t want to give this up.”

Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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