Lobbying Reform in Trouble?

LOBBYING REFORM IN TROUBLE?….AP reports that lobbying reform, one of the key planks in the 2006 Democratic campaign, is running into problems in the House:

Now that they are running things, many Democrats want to keep the big campaign donations and lavish parties that lobbyists put together for them. They’re also having second thoughts about having to wait an extra year before they can become high-paid lobbyists themselves should they retire or be defeated at the polls.

The growing resistance to several proposed reforms now threatens passage of a bill that once seemed on track to fulfill Democrats’ campaign promise of cleaner fundraising and lobbying practices.

There are four specific provisions that are said to be in trouble:

  • Bundling: Requires disclosure of the names of lobbyists who bundle lots of small donations from individual contributors. Current law requires only that the small donors themselves be disclosed.

  • 2-year lobbying ban: Requires retiring lawmakers to wait two years before they’re allowed to come back and start lobbying Congress.

  • Grassroots lobbying: Requires disclosure of “astroturf” firms that encourage voters to call or write Congress on specific issues.

  • Convention parties: Bans lobbyists from sponsoring parties at national conventions.

Let’s take these one by one. The party ban I don’t really care much about. If there’s any place in the world that lobbyists ought to be allowed to let the liquor flow, surely national conventions are the place. I mean, it’s not like they’re good for anything else these days.

The grassroots lobbying regulation is tricky. I sympathize with the idea, but I have to confess that conservative arguments over the past few years have persuaded me that First Amendment issues are more important than I’ve given them credit for in cases like this. I’m not entirely sure I support this provision at all. [UPDATE: The main issue here is that petitioning the government is a core First Amendment right, and mobilizing the citizenry to petition the government is likewise a core First Amendment right. What’s more, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between “astroturf” operations and genuine grassroots lobbying, and onerous reporting requirements could put some small grassroots groups out of business. For more, see the ACLU’s explanation of its opposition to this provision here.]

The 2-year lobbying ban, according to CQ, is still around: “Democratic leaders have insisted on a two-year ban as part of their ethics overhaul push,” a recent article says, despite pushback from some backbenchers. Good for them.

So far, then, not really that bad. But that leaves us with the biggest provision of all: disclosure of bundling. The American League of Lobbyists is dead set against it, which is no surprise, since this is a prime loophole that allows special interests to funnel vast sums of money to politicians without ever being identified. Apparently, though, it’s become so radioactive that Dem leaders are planning to drop it entirely, promising that they’ll allow it to come up later as a separate bill. Sure they will.

Come on, folks: show some spine. If Democrats want people to believe that there’s really a difference between the two parties, then show them there’s a difference. Put the bundling provision back in and give it a vote. It’s the right thing to do.