Lieberman Delivers Floor Statement Advocating Strong Lobbying Reform

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., delivered the following statement on the Senate floor Monday during the beginning of debate on lobbying reform.

“Mr. President, I rise to express my strong support for the bipartisan Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act which was reported out of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last Thursday and which forms a significant part of the combined Homeland Security –Rules Committee bill we are starting to consider today. “With these two bills before us, we now have the opportunity to vote on the most significant lobbying and ethics reform in at least a decade. I believe we in Congress can go a long way toward restoring our tattered reputation with the American public by moving swiftly to enact these proposals into law. “By ensuring full transparency for the legislative process and those who work within it, this legislation will directly answer many of the questions that have been raised about the relationships between Members of Congress and lobbyists, about the role of money in public debate and deliberations, and about whether results here in Washington go to the highest bidder or to the greatest public good. This bill draws back the curtain to let the sun shine directly and brightly on the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship for all to see, clearly and easily. “I want to thank my good friends, colleagues, and partners Senators McCain and Collins. Senator McCain, along with his Indian Affairs Committee Ranking Member Byron Dorgan, conducted a hard-hitting investigation into the activities of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, helping to expose his criminal activities, in particular his odious exploitation of Indian tribes. On the basis of that investigation, Senator McCain introduced the Lobbyist Transparency and Accountability Act, which I proudly co-sponsored. Chairman Collins took up the banner and, based on Senator McCain’s bill, we drafted legislation and quickly brought it before the Committee for mark up. The bill we debate today is the product of those efforts. “Senate Minority Leader Reid and Senator Obama have played critical leadership roles in pushing reform forward by introducing very strong legislation – the Honest Leadership Act – which earned the support of 41 Members of the Senate and really helped lay the groundwork for us today. The backing of virtually the entire Democratic caucus helped move this significant legislation to the floor, and the legislation we are taking up today contains most of the proposals laid out in the Honest Leadership Act. I will also be supporting amendments to restore other provisions from the Honest Leadership Act that were left out of the legislation before us today. And finally, thanks to Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who, history will note, was the first to introduce lobbying reform legislation. He did it last year. Senator Feingold is always a reliable ally when it comes to raising the public interest above the special interest. “Mr. President, the abuses to which these bills respond, I must stress, are the exception to the rule. Almost always, lobbyists comply with the law and provide Congress with valuable knowledge and expertise. Whether they represent corporations, unions, or trade associations, non-profits, or the public interest groups that have lobbied us to pass this legislation, lobbyists are instrumental to the work that goes on here on Capitol Hill. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of such work when they enshrined in the very first amendment the right of all people “to petition the government for redress of grievances.” We must always remember this when we legislate in this critically important and constitutionally-elevated area. Lobbyists and the people they represent are exercising a constitutional right, and so we must be careful, as we have done in our bill, to respect that right. Nothing in our bill improperly intrudes on the people’s right to be represented here in Washington. But there is an equivalent right of the public to a functioning form of government that must also be respected. “And that’s precisely what our bill does, by building on previous efforts in this area. The Supreme Court long ago made clear that the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to petition the government did not confer a right to do so in secret. In the 1954 case of United States v. Harris, the Court upheld the constitutionality of lobbying disclosure requirements and said those requirements were consistent with the First Amendment. Let me read a passage from that decision. And I quote here… “Present day legislative complexities are such that individual members of Congress cannot be expected to explore the myriad pressures to which they are regularly subjected. Yet the full realization of the American ideal of government by elected representatives depends to no small extent on their ability to properly evaluate such pressures. Otherwise, the voice of the people may all too easily be drowned out by the voice of the special interest groups seeking favored treatment while masquerading as proponents of the public weal. This is the evil which the Lobbying Act was designed to help prevent.” End of quote. “Mr. President, those words could not be truer today when most Americans, whether they realize it or not, are represented in some way by lobbyists in Washington, not just those of us who were elected to Congress. Whether they are teachers or steel workers, law enforcement officers or seniors, veterans or veterinarians, small business owners or big business executives – people from all walks of American life, million and millions of them, have paid representation in this city. Some of the strongest proponents of lobbying reform are registered lobbyists themselves, lobbying Congress to enact reforms like those we are discussing today for the honor of their profession and, I might say, for Congress. “The number of lobbyists in Washington has exploded over the last decade. The Congressional Research Service reported that over 30,000 people were registered as lobbyists in 2004, and that is an 86 percent increase over the number of registered lobbyists in 2000. The industry receives and spends enormous sums of money. According to the Center for Public Integrity, $3 billion was spent on lobbying activities in 2004, the last full year for which records are available. And that’s double the sum spent six years earlier. Add to these numbers the recent scandals, and the perception too many Americans have of business in Washington is one of cash exchanging hands under tables or campaign contributions made in exchange for back room favors. Public condemnation weighs upon Congress as an institution and lobbyists as a profession. “So, we find ourselves in a place where the current lobbying disclosure requirements are self-evidently inadequate, and ethics rules governing Member interactions with lobbyists need to be tightened, especially with respect to gifts from lobbyists. The Washington Post reported last December that more than 80 Members of Congress and their staff were listed as having appeared to have accepted entertainment from BellSouth lobbyists exceeding congressional gift limits. One can only wonder about the overall rate of failure to comply with the rules. “Let’s take a look at our Committee’s proposal in detail. The first thing our legislation would do is bring the lawmaker-lobbyist relationship into the age of the Internet. We mandate that lobbyist disclosure statements be made publicly available on a searchable Internet database, linked to the Federal Election Commission database of campaign contributions. We also require that these disclosures be made quarterly, instead of semi-annually as is now the case. That will add significantly to the public’s ability to monitor lobbyist-lawmaker interactions. “When combined with the Rules Committee’s bill, we virtually see the elimination of gifts to Members from lobbyists, and ensure that those that remain are fully disclosed. The Rules Committee bill bans all gifts other than meals from lobbyists to Members of Congress and their staff and requires Members to disclose on their websites any meals they do consume through the hospitality of a lobbyist. We, in turn, provide the belt to the Rules Committee’s suspenders by ensuring that lobbyists must, for the first time, disclose all gifts over $20, remembering that the law prohibits any lobbyist from giving any Member of Congress gifts more than $100 in any year. These two bills together will ensure a very significant curtailment of gifts and clear knowledge for the public of those that are still given. “The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee bill increases transparency in a number of other ways. Lobbyists will for the first time have to disclose when they play any role in arranging for Members of Congress and executive branch officials to travel. The lobbyist would have to disclose the purpose and itinerary of any trips, itemize expenses, and disclose all lobbyists and Members in the traveling party. “We also require more disclosure about lobbyists’ campaign activities. Contributions of $200 or more to candidates, leadership PACs or parties — as well as fundraising events hosted or sponsored by lobbyists – would have to be reported on an annual basis. These disclosures are now available on FEC databases, but they are not easy to find. Chairman Collins and I believe that this additional reporting requirement is a minimal burden well worth the additional public disclosure. “To those who had concerns that the initial formulation of this provision unfairly forced employees to tell their employers whom they gave campaign contributions to, let me assure you that the Committee heard your concerns and responded. We no longer require lobbyists to disclose their contributions through their employers, but instead mandate direct disclosure from each lobbyist. We also make clear that the contributions that must be disclosed are the same ones already provided by campaigns to the FEC. In other words, we are not requiring additional information about an individual’s campaign contributions. We are just making it easier for the public to find it. “Our proposal takes another step forward to require lobbyists to disclose payments for events that honor Members of Congress or executive branch officials, as well as payments to organizations, such as charities, that are founded or controlled by Members of Congress. Together, these provisions ensure that the public will have full knowledge of all money that is flowing from lobbyists to organizations run by or associated with Members of Congress. This critical and substantial reform will go far to provide the full transparency the people demand and deserve. “We would also shed new light on the political background of lobbyists by requiring them to disclose all past Congressional or executive branch employment, instead of the current requirement to disclose only the last two years of employment. “Our proposal would increase incentives to comply with the law by doubling the civil penalty for noncompliance under the Lobbying Disclosure Act from $50,000 to $100,000. Also, for the first time, we prohibit lobbyists by statute from providing gifts or travel that doesn’t comply with Congressional ethics rules. This is a critical reform, because, up until now, there has been nothing in the law to stop lobbyists from giving Members or staff gifts that skirt Congressional limits, as long as Members and staff were willing to accept them. With this reform, lobbyists would continue that kind of behavior at their own very serious public peril. “Our proposal would also make greater demands on those among us who move back and forth between public service and lobbying. To avoid conflicts of interest, we would increase from one year to two the amount of time that must pass before a former Member of Congress or a former high-level executive branch official must wait before lobbying his or her former colleagues. For Congressional staff, we expand the one year cooling off period to bar lobbying not just of the staffer’s former office but of the entire House of Congress in which the staffer worked. Again, if the revolving door spins more slowly, so too will abuses. “Now, let me address what has become a controversial portion of our legislation. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on a strong and bipartisan vote, accepted in mark-up an amendment offered by Senator Levin and myself in direct response to the Abramoff scandal that ignited the reform drive that brings us together today. Mr. Abramoff directed his clients to pay millions of dollars to grassroots lobbying firms controlled by himself and his associate Michael Scanlon – fees that were then, in large part, directed back to Mr. Abramoff in the form of kickbacks. I believe that if disclosure requirements had been in place, Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon would not have been able to pull off this scam. “But the Abramoff-Scanlon so-called “astroturf” campaign was not an isolated event. In the past decade, orchestrated, paid-for, so-called grass-roots campaigns have become a stable and integrated part of many big-money lobbying campaigns. There is nothing wrong with this. The question is whether we should ask for minimal disclosure. Last year, it was hard to miss the ads paid for by lobbyists urging voters to contact their Members of Congress to vote either for or against Social Security private accounts. In the first two months of 2006 alone, candidates and public interest groups have spent over $92 million on television advertising. The confirmation of Justice Alito, asbestos litigation reform, implementation of the new Medicare rules, and proposals related to telecommunications regulation all generated massive media campaigns aimed at generating constituent calls to Members and drove up spending on issue advertisements “Our proposal on this matter would for the first time ever require the disclosure of money received and spent by professional, big-money grassroots campaigners – that is grassroots efforts paid for by lobbyists to generate major media campaigns, mass mailings, and large phone banks with the intent of influencing Members of Congress or the executive branch. “Let me say that again, because I want my colleagues to be clear about what this provision does and does not do. It does not ban or restrict grassroots lobbying of any kind in any way. That would be wrong. Grassroots lobbying is another important way for people to get involved and contact their members of Congress. It merely requires the disclosure of the amount of money spent on this type of lobbying when it is done by professional, and big money campaigns. “The controversy over this provision is unreasonable because our bill will not impede any true grassroots lobbying in any way. In fact, Senator Levin and I have taken steps to ensure that our proposal applies only to the larger, professional efforts such as the one Mr. Abramoff devised. For example: If the grassroots lobbying effort spends under $25,000 per quarter –in other words, less than $100,000 a year – it will not have to report at all. They’re exempt. Money spent on communications directed at an organization’s own members, employees, officers, or shareholders is also exempt from disclosure. 501(c)(3) organizations that already report grassroots expenses to the IRS would be allowed to report that same number under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, minimizing any alleged paperwork or accounting burden on these organizations. And while redundant, we make clear that reporting is not required for voluntary efforts by the general public to communicate their own views to federal officials or to encourage other members of the general public to do the same. “Ten years ago Senator Levin unsuccessfully fought for a grassroots lobbying disclosure provision when Congress passed the Lobbying Disclosure Act. At the time, he said such campaigns spent about $700 million a year. That figure has likely grown past $1 billion today, and the public has no accurate picture of who is spending what to influence others to lobby us. Disclosure of paid grassroots lobbying is way past due. “Let me stress in no uncertain terms: The reform we are debating here today does nothing to abridge the right of the people – of all people — to petition their government. Its purpose is simply to bring the grassroots lobbying community out of the shadows and expose its interactions with and for Members of Congress for everyone to see. “We are not talking about disclosing the activities of a grassroots organization. We are talking about disclosing just two numbers: the amount of money received and the amount of money spent. Nothing more and nothing less than lobbyists are already required to do. “During markup, some Senators asked whether 527 groups would be covered by this provision. Mr. President, 527s are already required by law to disclose far greater amounts of information to either the Internal Revenue Service or the Federal Election Commission. 527 groups are required, for instance, to disclose the names of anyone who contributes more than $200 a year. And they must state the purpose of any expenditure over $500. So let’s put to rest the notion that we have to do something about 527 groups here because we already require far more of them than we are asking of paid, professional grassroots lobbying efforts. “Another question was raised in Committee about whether a broadcaster would be subject to the grassroots disclosure requirements for urging his or her audience on radio or television to take a particular position on an issue. Of course not. The bill requires disclosure only by paid lobbyists who acting on behalf of a client. “Mr. President, I have described what I think are very powerful provisions in this legislation to increase disclosure, to increase the transparency of the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship, and to slow down the revolving door between government service and K Street. I have heard some people say this legislation is not strong enough because the Committee struck from the bill a bicameral Office of Public Integrity that would have been the new, independent repository of disclosure statements with the power to investigate complaints and issue subpoenas. “The enforcement provision that Senator Collins and I advocated for in Committee would have helped restore the confidence of the American people in the ability of Congress to ensure compliance with its own ethics rules. The ethics process in the House of Representatives, quite frankly, is dysfunctional. I do believe we have a strong Ethics Committee in the Senate. That’s not why we’re offering this proposal. We’re offering it to add staff and support to the Ethics Committee and to add an element of independence and greater transparency to it. Our proposal would have provided that by establishing an independent office within Congress to conduct the preliminary review of any alleged violation of the House or Senate rules. “In addition to restoring the public trust in the ability of Congress to police itself, our proposal was designed to act as a watchdog over the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Now, lobbying disclosure forms are filed with the Secretary of the Senate’s office, which has fewer then 20 people to review filings, compared to the 400 employees of the Federal Election Commission, which many people believe is understaffed. It’s very hard for 20 people to oversee and supervise the filings of over 30,000 lobbyists. “I assure you that I will be joining my colleagues in offering amendments to strengthen the enforcement mechanisms of our proposed reforms. “I will also offer an amendment with Senator McCain to curb the excesses of privately funded travel – whether for governmental or campaign purposes. Currently, when a Member of Congress or a candidate for federal office uses a private plane instead of flying on a commercial flight, the ethics rules require a payment to the owner of the plane equivalent to a first class commercial ticket. Senator McCain and I and others believe that the current rule undervalues flights on non-commercial jets and provides an end run on what corporations can give us as gifts. We believe it is time to update our rules to base payment on the fair market value of chartering a private plane. “But even without these amendments, our Committee has passed a very strong bill, a bill with sharp teeth, that I believe will reduce the influence of money on the legislative process, prevent the kinds of grotesque abuses that Mr. Abramoff and Congressman Cunningham have pleaded guilty to, and restore the balance of power in favor of the American people. I am confident that increased transparency – the so-called disinfecting rays of sunshine – will discourage many abuses that now occur. And when combined with the bill reported out of the Rules Committee, we will be writing into law a near total ban on gifts. Thus, to the extent that lobbyists do confer gifts or arrange for travel for Members of Congress, our constituents will be able to follow our activities on the Internet and will be kept well informed by our industrious and free press. It has been said that information is power, and information, and therefore power, is what we are providing the public with this legislation. “These are dramatic and transformational steps that are included in both of these measures. I hope will give our constituents a renewed sense of faith in this institution. I urge my colleagues to support this legislation.”