TOPICS > Politics

House Moves on Lobbying Reform Provisions

May 24, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: After months of wrangling within their own ranks, House Democrats made good on 2006 campaign promises to bring a package of lobbying reforms to the floor for a vote.

REP. KATHY CASTOR (D), Florida: Last November, the Congress was reinvigorated by the election of a large number of new members who were sent here by the American people to fight for reform and change and to sweep aside a previous Congress that was defined by scandal and corruption.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R), California: Having this 213-page measure before us…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as debate began, Republicans, stung by the association with Jack Abramoff and others, criticized the reforms as too weak.

REP. DAVID DREIER: This bill takes no risks, reaches no heights, and falls short of the lofty promises made by my newly minted majority colleagues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The bill would require lobbyists to disclose their expenditures electronically and more frequently, with a maximum fine of $100,000 for those who don’t. It would prohibit lobbyists from providing meals, tickets to sporting events, and other gifts of any value, and would also bar spouses of members from lobbying their office.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D), Illinois: Now it’s the conduct of the member to also understand there’s a new day; there’s change in the way you do things here in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: However, left out of the bill was a provision that would have forced lobbying firms to disclose their expenses in promoting political campaigns posing as grassroots efforts. Also left out was the doubling from one year to two the time a former member of Congress must wait before he or she can lobby, the so-called “revolving door” provision.

REP. STEVE CHABOT (R), Ohio: The majority has brought to the floor a package that does not quite reach the standard set by House Republicans last Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another contentious issue actually was split off and put into a separate measure. The so-called “bundling bill” would require lobbyists to divulge the sources of multiple contributions they collect for federal candidates and officeholders. Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen was the sponsor.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), Maryland: This bill involves simply the disclosure of information that the public has a right to know. And a vote against this bill is a vote to deny that public important information that they can use to judge the legislative process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: However, Texas Republican Lamar Smith insisted that the bill also include bundled contributions to political action committees, which now give more money to Democrats than Republicans.

REP. LAMAR SMITH (R), Texas: The majority has let the color of money dampen their desire for more openness and reform. The loophole in this bill that exempts bundled contributions to PACs is big enough to ride a Democratic donkey through.

REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), Michigan: This is a poison pill amendment.

REP. ELLEN TAUSCHER (D), California: Gentleman’s time has expired. Without objection, the previous question is ordered on the motion to recommit…

Disclosing financial links

Fred Wertheimer
Democracy 21
What this bill does is expose the multiple ways in which lobbyists provide financial help to assist members. For example, lobbyists gather large amounts of money, campaign contributions, and provide them to members and get credit for doing so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Smith forced a vote on that issue and, with the help of reform-minded freshman Democrats, prevailed. Both bills then were approved overwhelmingly and now go to the Senate, which already has approved many of these same reforms.

For more, we turn to two registered lobbyists with opposing views on the changes: Fred Wertheimer, president of the non-profit organization Democracy 21, formerly head of Common Cause; and Paul Miller, partner at the lobbying firm Miller-Wenhold Capitol Strategies, and former president of the American League of Lobbyists.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

Fred Wertheimer, to you first. You believe that these bills are an improvement over what exists now, ethics legislation surrounding lobbying. Specifically, what is an improvement?

FRED WERTHEIMER, President, Democracy 21: Well, these are strong lobbying reform bills. And at the heart of this legislation is disclosure for citizens about the financial links between lobbyists and members of Congress.

What this bill does is expose the multiple ways in which lobbyists provide financial help to assist members. For example, lobbyists gather large amounts of money, campaign contributions, and provide them to members and get credit for doing so. That will now be required to be disclosed.

Lobbyists pay for parties, lavish parties at conventions, large sums of money. That will have to be disclosed. Lobbyists give money to members' foundations. That will have to be disclosed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me stop you there.

Paul Miller, you essentially believe that this is not much of an improvement over what exists now. So what about these points?

PAUL MILLER, Miller-Wenhold Capitol Strategies: This bill should have never come to the floor. This bill should have never been written, for one thing. Congress overreacted and has had a knee-jerk reaction to one individual, and that happened two years ago. This system is not broken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jack Abramoff?

PAUL MILLER: Jack Abramoff. The system is not broken. If you look at the record, the Justice Department has put, I believe, nine people in prison now for breaking these rules and regulations. So to say the system is flawed and broken is not responsible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the greater disclosure Mr. Wertheimer is referring to, the fact that people will now know how much money is being given, who's giving it?

PAUL MILLER: That information is already -- political contributions are already detailed on expense reports or FEC filings by the candidates. So if I give a $200 contribution to a member of Congress, that's going to show up, and the public can still see that information.

So this is not -- that's not -- the bundling issue should never have been a part of this, because it's not a lobby -- just let me finish -- it's not a lobbying issue. It's a campaign finance issue. And if Congress wants to deal with campaign finance issues, let's do that separately. But this is not a lobbying issue.

Loopholes in the bundling package

Paul Miller
Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies
If you want true transparency, why not include everybody who's doing this, not just put the onus on the lobbyists, for some reason, who have become the scapegoats in all this?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're not only saying it's not a lobbying issue, you're saying it's not an improvement. Is that right?

PAUL MILLER: No, because the information is already out there, so why are you going to make us file another set of forms that really is not going to -- the general public is not going to understand anyway?

FRED WERTHEIMER: First of all, lobbyists don't give $200 contributions. They give much larger contributions.

Secondly, what Paul is saying is absolutely wrong. There are multiple ways in which lobbyists provide money to help members of Congress. Only one of them -- campaign contributions -- is currently disclosed.

There is no disclosure when lobbyists put up the money to pay for conferences and retreats held by members of Congress. There is no disclosure when lobbyists give money to foundations controlled by members of Congress. And there is no disclosure of the bundling of contributions, which allow me to provide $50,000 or $100,000 in a bunch of contributions to help a member as opposed to my direct contribution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about those specifics?

PAUL MILLER: I mean, again, it goes back to this bill should have never come to the floor. Congress doesn't even know if there are problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about those specific points that he made, that now there's disclosure of when money is given for conferences, for retreats, for these large bundling?

PAUL MILLER: There's loopholes in this bundling package. As it was pointed out in your earlier segment or in the lead up to this, PACs are not -- PACs that bundle contributions are not required to...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Political action committees.

PAUL MILLER: Yes, and one -- I'll give you an example. Emily's List is -- really one of those sole functions is to bundle contributions. They're exempt from this. So if you want true transparency, why not include everybody who's doing this, not just put the onus on the lobbyists, for some reason, who have become the scapegoats in all this?

FRED WERTHEIMER: Well, I mean, Paul missed the point that Representative Smith added PACs to this. But the purpose here is to show the relationship between the lobbyist and the member of Congress, because if I can provide financial help to a member of Congress, in many ways, I get influence.

It's not about a lobbyist bundling money for a PAC; it is about the relationship that money creates between a member and a lobbyist. And all this does is say the public has a right to know about it, and it provides that right.

PAUL MILLER: Shouldn't we then ask every citizen in this country, CEOs, labor union heads, and any person, a constituent, be required to file the same forms? Because let's be honest here.

We talk about how our government -- and we're supposed to be able to do these types of things, but CEOs of companies, head of labor unions, are doing the same types of things we are. They want the same access to members of Congress as we do, so there's nothing wrong with it, but yet we are the ones who are now being singled out.

Why not make this applicable to everybody who gives a campaign contribution to a member of Congress?

Providing more transparency

Fred Wertheimer
Democracy 21
They are paid to influence Congress. We ought to know what they're doing to gain that influence. Particularly, we ought to know when they're putting up large sums of money for a member of Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that?

FRED WERTHEIMER: Well, Mr. Miller seems to think that lobbyists are unfairly treated in our society. What you're dealing with is people who are paid money to influence Congress. And if a CEO happens to be someone who is directly lobbying Congress and listed as a lobbyist, they would be covered.

PAUL MILLER: But they don't have to be listed as a lobbyist.

FRED WERTHEIMER: But let me make this point. Lobbyists are in the business. They are paid to influence Congress. We ought to know what they're doing to gain that influence. Particularly, we ought to know when they're putting up large sums of money for a member of Congress.

There are lobbyists who spend $25,000 or $50,000 to pay for a party at the national conventions to honor a member of Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying, on that specific point...

PAUL MILLER: Are we doing the system any justice by saying, "OK, lobbyists don't do it now. We'll just have heads of corporate companies do it, labor union heads, and all those other folks." They don't have to file or report this. So is the system any more transparent? I don't think so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you suggesting that's what could happen?

PAUL MILLER: Well, you could.

PAUL MILLER: It could. It could.

FRED WERTHEIMER: We have thousands and thousands and thousands of lobbyists in Washington, and they're not going to disappear. They're not going to be replaced. If you are paid to lobby Congress, you're covered by this act.

And for some reason, Paul seems to think that lobbyists who are being paid to gain influence should be able to do it in secret ways, in ways that do not disclose...

PAUL MILLER: That's an inaccurate statement. We're all for transparency. If you want to put our lobbying disclosure filings online, fine. Let's make them clean. Let's make the process easy so that the general public can look at this information. Right now, the Senate and House systems don't work together in uniform, so it's difficult. The House, you have to actually go...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean they don't work?

PAUL MILLER: You don't file once. You have to file with the House and the Senate, so you can't just file once, where it goes to both, and it goes instantaneously online. If you want to view my reports in the House, you've still got to go to the Cannon House Office Building to do it, so you've got to come here to Washington.

So if we're talking about transparency, let's fix some of these things that we can. Nobody in this room could probably tell you how many registered lobbyists there are, because the database in the Senate is not accurate. We hear 40,000, 30,000.

FRED WERTHEIMER: Well, this bill does provide Internet disclosure. So no one has to come to Washington under this legislation. You will be able to get access to the information on the Internet.

But Paul says he's happy to have his information on the Internet. What he's not happy to have is the information that citizens ought to have about what lobbyists are doing.

PAUL MILLER: That's not true. I'm saying, if you're going to apply these rules to lobbyists, let's apply them to everybody who does what we do. P.R. consultants who influence legislation and members of Congress, they're not required to file lobbying disclosure...

Looking at campaign finance

Paul Miller
Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies
If you're a registered lobbyist in this town or across America, you should be scared. We'll follow the rules if they're implemented, but it's not a good bill by any stretch of the imagination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This doesn't apply to them.

PAUL MILLER: No. And it doesn't apply to professional grassroots firms who do the same types of things we do. So if we want transparency, and if the November elections were about good government and open government, why don't we make everybody who does what we do to influence government file the same forms and file the same rules we do?

FRED WERTHEIMER: Do you support applying it to P.R. firms?

PAUL MILLER: Absolutely, absolutely.

FRED WERTHEIMER: Do you support grassroots?

PAUL MILLER: Absolutely.

FRED WERTHEIMER: You weren't up there on this stuff.

PAUL MILLER: That's not true.

FRED WERTHEIMER: We have a class of thousands and thousands of lobbyists in Washington. They use money to buy influence with members of Congress. Citizens ought to know the way they're using money to buy influence with members of Congress.

PAUL MILLER: I've got a simple solution to this whole problem here. If money is the issue, and what we keep hearing about is it is the issue, let's talk about campaign finance. Let's have every member of Congress agree not to take any contributions over $100 from anybody outside their district or their state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one of your points is that members are still going to be asking lobbyists for money for their campaign.

PAUL MILLER: Absolutely.

FRED WERTHEIMER: Sure. And, again, this is not the ultimate end solution. We have more work to do. We need campaign finance reform, but this is not just campaign contributions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, this was House acting. The Senate acted in January. This will now go to the Senate to be reconciled. What do you think will happen, Paul Miller?

PAUL MILLER: It's anybody's guess right now. I mean, if you're a registered lobbyist in this town or across America, you should be scared. We'll follow the rules if they're implemented, but it's not a good bill by any stretch of the imagination. We'll be back here a year or two years from now with more problems.

FRED WERTHEIMER: I think we will get a strong lobbying reform bill, and lobbyists should not be "afraid" of disclosing to the citizens of this country what they're doing to influence Congress, particularly when it deals with providing money in various ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we're going to leave it there. Paul Miller, Fred Wertheimer, thank you both.

FRED WERTHEIMER: Thank you.