What's Happening in Congress?
Under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House in a single day approved some of the most critical new ethics rules changes seen in a decade. Lobbyists, and organizations that employ them, are now banned from giving gifts of any value to members of Congress and their staff; prohibited from arranging or paying for congressional travel, except for one-day trips to make a speech or attend a conference; and barred from flying on private corporate jets for campaign purposes, personal trips and travel connected to official duties. Further, the growing wave of earmarks in appropriations and tax bills must be identified with a specific congressional sponsor.
Nearly all of these reforms were rebuked by the House and the Senate last year. Following the November elections, the same reforms were adopted by a near-unanimous vote of 430-to-1, with Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) as the lone dissenting vote.
Next on the reform agenda for Pelosi is her legislative package, which regulates the conduct of persons outside the House (i.e., lobbyists and former members). This package is expected to contain an equally impressive set of legislative reforms, such as slowing the revolving door and enhancing disclosure of fundraising activity by lobbyists and Astroturf lobbying.
This week the Senate begins debate on its version of lobbying and ethics reform. One key provision likely to be in both the House and Senate reform bills is coming under attack by a coalition of for-profit direct mail and lobbying firms. The Free Speech Coalition, Incorporated – an entity led by James Bopp (James Madison Center), Paul Weyrich (Free Congress Foundation), Richard Viguerie (ConservativeHQ.com), Rev. Louis Sheldon (Traditional Values Coalition), Edward Nelson (U.S. Border Patrol) and others – is highly critical of the “Astroturf lobbying” disclosure provision in the bills.
The legislative proposal on Astroturf lobbying is solely and simply a disclosure requirement of the money behind lobbying – requiring disclosure of who is paying to encourage the general public to contact their elected officials and how much. This type of disclosure is useful information for both the public and Congress, imposes no restrictions on citizens and groups who contact or even lobby their elected representatives, and clearly passes constitutional muster.
The disclosure requirement only affects corporations and large organizations that spend substantial sums on direct mail and television and radio campaigns designed to encourage the general public (rather than a group’s members) to contact government officials to support or oppose pending legislation. Entities that spend more than $25,000 in a three-month period specifically on such lobbying expenditures would be required to disclose to the public a “good faith” estimate of their lobbying expenditures. Outside vendors hired by these entities to wage lobbying campaigns would be required to itemize how they spend the money.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that it is in the public’s best interest, and the interest of Congress, to provide full disclosure of the money being spent to influence legislation. Legislators need this information to properly evaluate the political pressures to which they are being subjected. The public needs this information to evaluate the integrity of their legislators.
All too often, corporations and wealthy special interest groups conceal the true sources of funding in their lobbying drive to secure a government contract or kill legislation. At least twelve recent examples of this are highlighted in Public Citizen’s recent study, “Organizing Astroturf: Evidence Shows How Bogus Grassroots Groups Hijack the Political Debate”.
When the public and Congress is unaware who is spending substantial sums to influence the legislative debate, the integrity of the legislative process is diminished. Sunlight is a time-honored and powerful disinfectant.