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House Votes to Lift Veil Over Lobbyists' Donations
WASHINGTON, May 24 - The House voted Thursday to drag into public view the role that registered lobbyists play in soliciting and collecting contributions for political campaigns, exposing for the first time one of the most effective ways that influence-seekers ingratiate themselves with lawmakers and presidents.
The measure goes to the heart of how Washington does business by uncovering a hidden practice that sprang up as an unintended consequence of restrictions imposed by campaign finance laws. Because those laws cap individual contributions - now $2,300 per campaign - candidates have been turning to well-connected lobbyists to bundle stacks of checks to make up the millions they need to run their campaigns.
Washington lobbyists hoping for access to lawmakers have the greatest incentive to shoulder such fund-raising burdens. But previous election rules required campaigns to disclose only their individual contributors, not the intermediaries who may have bundled them.
The proposed new rule could expose the heavy reliance of many in Congress on Washington lobbyists to raise money for their campaigns.
Lobbyists are not the only bundlers. Only those who spend at least 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities and hold at least two meetings with government officials over six months are required to register as lobbyists, so many of the most influential bundlers will not be affected by the new rule.
For example, Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist now serving a prison sentence for bribery, would be required to disclose his bundling. But Brent R. Wilkes, the military contractor who has been indicted on charges of bribing former Representative Randy Cunningham, Republican of California, would not have had to disclose his extensive bundling.
The measure passed by an overwhelming margin, 396 to 22, but the outcome was uncertain until Thursday afternoon. Even as they prepared to vote for the bill, many lawmakers groused that it would hamper their fund-raising. Its prospects were endangered by behind-the-scenes resistance from business-friendly Democrats, who often have close ties to corporate lobbyists, and by black and Hispanic lawmakers, who argued that their less affluent districts make it hard for them to raise money.
Mindful of campaign pledges to clean up Congressional corruption, however, the leaders of the new Democratic majority kept negotiating, compromising and cajoling into Wednesday night to ensure they had enough Democratic support to pass the measure.
Then, once the bill appeared likely to pass, even skeptical lawmakers clambered aboard, reluctant to cast a public vote that could be interpreted as against openness in government. The Senate passed a similar measure to expose bundling at the start of the year, making it likely that the measure will be sent to the president's desk.
Washington lobbyists complained that the bill unfairly singled them out among the many other lawyers, industry executives and powerbrokers who also bundle but are not registered lobbyists.
"The concern is that it is unequal treatment," said Thomas M. Susman, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist who advises many in the industry about the applications of such rules.
"One company does its bundling by using a corporate vice president and the other does the same thing through a lobbyist who represents its business," Mr. Susman said. "The fact that this law only captures the second example means that you are discriminating against the lobbyist."
The best public list of major Republican bundlers is the roster disclosed by President Bush's campaigns. He designated those who raised at least $200,000 as "rangers" and those who produced at least $100,000 as "pioneers." Fewer than half were registered federal lobbyists.
This year, Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat and candidate for his party's presidential nomination, has raised more campaign contributions than any other candidate even though his campaign has declined to accept contributions or bundled checks from registered federal lobbyists. (Mr. Obama does accept bundled checks from state-level lobbyists and former federal lobbyists.) Mr. Obama was the primary sponsor of the Senate legislation to require lobbyists to disclose their bundled contributions.
Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped sponsor the House measure, acknowledged that the legislation would not address all bundlers. "This is in the context of lobbying reform," he said, adding that he would prefer public financing of campaigns so that dependence on bundlers could be eliminated altogether.
Even as they voted for the House measure, some Democrats shrugged off its potential effect.
"I'm for it, but it won't make much of a difference," said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. "As long as campaigns can spend an unlimited amount of money, they will find a way to get their hands on it."
Mr. Frank said he was particularly disappointed that the legislation omitted an earlier proposal to ban parties to honor lawmakers at the nominating conventions. He is the chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, which makes him a prime target of favor-seeking Wall Street firms. He said he dreaded having to reject many invitations.
Still, House Democratic leaders said the bundling measure, part of a broader lobbying bill, delivered on their campaign promises.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the legislation would provide "an unprecedented level of disclosure - both in quantity and quality - on the interactions between lobbyists and legislators."
Voters would understand the importance, said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and has been a central figure in the negotiations to win support for the bill. "The folks back home participate on Election Day, and on everything else the lobbyists have a bigger voice than they do," Mr. Emanuel said.
Fred Wertheimer, a veteran government ethics advocate who was involved in negotiations on the measure, said that as late as Wednesday night it was unclear whether the Democratic leaders had the votes to pass the measure.
"But the behind-the-scenes opposition melted away when members were faced with recorded votes on the floor," Mr. Wertheimer said.
For lobbyists, the bill would turn what had been a one- to three-page, semi-annual disclosure filing into a much lengthier quarterly filing. They would be required to disclose information not only about their bundling, but also about any gifts or meals provided to lawmakers. And the bill would greatly increase the penalties for any violations of disclosure requirements and other rules.
"It is a transfer of liability for the violation of the House and Senate gift rules from the members and staff to the lobbyists," said Marc E. Elias, a Washington lawyer who represents lawmakers and lobbyists.
Democrats boasted that their bill was more comprehensive than anything the Republicans had accomplished last year. But leaders of the House Republican minority unexpectedly stole some of the limelight by winning majority support for amendments to address what they had called deficits in the bill.
One change applied the lobbyist regulations to lobbyists for state and local governments as well as private companies. Another change applied the bundling disclosure rules to contributions given to political action committees as well as those given to campaigns. A third required lobbyists to disclose the specific earmarks, or pet spending items, that they sought to insert in bills.
As Representative David Dreier of California, the ranking Republican on the House rules committee, said on the floor, "We are all reformers today."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company