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The lobbying reform bill that Congress passed this summer has been hailed as the most significant overhaul of Capitol Hill ethics in years. That may be, but K Streeters aren’t convinced that it will change much. They say that most of the provisions in the 61-page legislation either find new ways to ban activities that are already forbidden, or simply increase the penalties for violating existing rules that are rarely enforced. Lobbyist Robert Walker views the bill as part of the natural ebb and flow of Washington politics. “We go through these things once every few years, where we think that by piling on more rules and regulations, the system’s going to get better,” says Walker. A former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who now represents XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. and Comcast Corporation, he adds, “Usually the system gets worse.” At press time President George Bush was suggesting that he might refuse to sign the bill. But observers still expect it to become law since it was passed by veto-proof margins in both chambers (411 to 8 in the House, 83 to 14 in the Senate). If the legislation goes into effect, here’s how lobbyists plan to cope with some of its most important provisions. No gifts, please: Lobbyists will be barred from giving anything of value to anyone in a lawmaker’s office (they were previously allowed to make gifts of $50 or less). Lobbying firms will also have to certify that they’re complying with the rule. In Walker’s view, this rule simply means that lobbyists will redirect their gifts from congressional members to the lawmakers’ campaigns. He notes that under the new system, he won’t be able buy lunch for one of his former colleagues in the House, but he would be free to spend $1,000 at a campaign fund-raising dinner. With regard to the compliance requirements, lobbyists say that it will just add to their paperwork. According to Loren Monroe, the chief operating officer of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, “As best I can tell, it will keep our general counsel working harder.” Really, no gifts: Members of Congress who accept gifts from lobbyists in violation of the rule will face criminal penalties and six-figure fines. Enforcement of previous disclosure requirements has been lax. Lawmakers already can be fined up to $50,000 if they don’t register the gifts that they receive, but that penalty has never been levied. That may change, however, according to Rob Kelner, chairman of the election law practice at Covington & Burling. A provision in the new lobbying law requires the attorney general to file biannual reports on enforcement actions, which will probably increase the odds of sanctions. “That is clearly designed to embarrass the Justice Department into launching enforcement actions,” Kelner says. “What do you think the chances are that the attorney general will report every six months, ‘No actions’?” Bundle up: Lawmakers have long relied on bundled campaign contributions-donations from multiple individuals that are packaged as a single contribution. Now congressional campaigns will have to disclose instances in which they receive bundled donations that exceed $15,000 over a six-month period. Walker can already see one way around this rule: outsourcing. If a company or lobbying firm wants to be discreet about its campaign contributions, it could simply hire another lobby shop to handle the fund-raising and show up on the registrations. Smaller firms would probably be “delighted” to have the publicity, Walker believes. Full fare: Lawmakers will be restricted from flying on private jets for any “officially connected” travel. While House rules dictate a total ban, the Senate will still allow its members to use private planes if they pay the full charter rates. Blame this rule (as well as many others) on Jack Abramoff. The disgraced lobbyist liked to ply lawmakers with lavish junkets, such as an infamous golf outing in Scotland. Abramoff’s brazen actions made travel restrictions “agenda item number one,” according to Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The new flight rules will have a major effect on companies who want to make their case on Capitol Hill. Jay Timmons, senior vice president for government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers, says that NAM used to sponsor three-day trips for lawmakers and their staffers, typically visiting three to five manufacturing sites per day. According to Timmons, the point of the trips was to give members of Congress a chance to talk to managers and workers about the possible effects of proposed legislation. “Now that [the travel restrictions] are permanent, we’re probably out of that business,” he says. No parties at the conventions: Lobbyists and their clients won’t be able to throw bashes honoring members of Congress at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. The impact of this rule is expected to be fairly negligible. Lobbyists are waiting for clarification from their legal advisers, but it doesn’t take a J.D. to see how a prohibition against “honoring [a] member” creates a loophole big enough to toss a few cases of Veuve Clicquot through. Kelner feels that a strong legal case can be made for an event held on the day before a convention officially starts. If all else fails, companies can sign on as convention sponsors. A version of this article originally appeared in Legal Times, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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