lobby & earmark reform

Issue in Brief

After being hit hard by lobbyist scandals in '05, Congress was in the mood to wipe off the taint of corruption in 2006. But early whip-cracking efforts to clean up lobbyists' act and rein in the influence of corrupting "earmarks" eventually wilted into a few modest reforms - in bills that never got passed.

2007 revived lobby and earmark reform, starting off the year with a reform frenzy, with the House passing rules to out earmark sponsors and the Senate passing a bill to shine even more light on lobbyist activities. The House followed up on the Senate's bill, passing a similar bill in May - with the two chambers passing a final bill in early August.

Though some lawmakers grumbled the 2007 bill didn't go far enough and there's still some talk of creating an independent ethics panel, it looks like Congress is prettyu much finished with lobby and earmark reform for the near future.

What's a lobbyist anyway? Although Jack Abramoff gave them a bad rap, lobbyists in theory can - like lawyers or politicians - serve a good purpose. Lobby firms are hired by special interest groups (say, AARP) to educate congressmembers about their causes (the needs of senior citizens, to stick with the example) and influence legislation (kill social security reform). With the many complicated policies Congress wrestles with, lobbying is considered by some as an effective way to get lawmakers informed on all their constituents' viewpoints; others, however, would say lobbyists give special interests an unfair influence over lawmaker's decisions.

And earmarks? You won't find a standard Webster's definition of "earmark" but, as many a lawmaker will say, you know one when you see one. Earmarks - loosely speaking - are pet projects that get inserted into larger bills by lawmakers who either want to bring home the bacon to their district or throw a bone to a special interest group. This Washington Post article gives a larger array of definitions.

So what's the problem?

Hobnobbing on the Hill. Critics say that lobbyists have gotten too cozy with lawmakers - throwing fancy parties and taking them on lavish trips - so congressmembers care too much about helping out their lobbyist buddies and not as much about doing good by their constituents or country.

The Axis of Earmarks. Others - from both the right and left - go farther and say the real problem are "earmarks," pet projects inserted into larger bills that give lobbyists and lawmakers an incentive to pander to local interests. This is how it works (according to the Washington Post, Heritage, Wall Street Journal and New York Times - i.e. we think we're not making this up): a local organization, agency or company wants Congress to pass a piece of legislation that will win them, say, a new museum wing, bridge or lucrative government contract - so they hire hire a lobbyist to help them pass their mini-bill. The lobbyist may do the kosher thing and just "educate" lawmakers on the advantages of the bill, but often lobbyists will also coordinate a Political Action Committee (PAC) or "bundle" contributions to raise money for that lawmaker's next political campaign.

Nothing illegal happens, but the whole set up begins to look a lot like "you get us a $1 million dollar deal from Congress and we'll raise $50,000 for your campaign coffers" - that is, corrupt. Critics also say that the earmark frenzy simply sucks up a lot of time (with lawmakers having to think about earmarks rather than solving the world's problems) and money (see below). For various reasons, it's become easier for lawmakers to add earmarks to bills and, some say, harder for them to raise easy money, so the incentive for local groups, lobbyists and lawmakers to work together have only mushroomed in recent years.

The bigger Bigger Picture

Opinion pieces don't stop at lobbyist and earmark reform when trying to get to the heart of corruption on Capitol Hill. But while many agree that DC is suffering from the constant scramble for campaign cash, the left and right usually head in opposite directions when offering solutions. In the smallest of nutshells, the left usually says that campaign finance rules need to be stricter to better cut off the influence of money from politics; the right's customary response is that campaign finance rules should be loosened or quashed altogether since a) they go against the right to free speech and b) they don't work anyway. For background on campaign finance reform see our facts page. For even more opinions on lobbyists and corruption, see links at the bottom of this page.

In defense of lobbyists

Defenders of lobbyists say that too strict rules on trips could stymie what's good about the lobby industry - educational trips designed to inform congressmembers of local issues. Strict disclosure regulations also run the risk bogging down the less wealthy and savvy lobbying groups in paperwork.

Status

What got done in 2006

The Senate passed a lobby reform bill the week of March 27 2006. The House followed with their bill on May 3, but the two chambers were unable to reach a compromise joint bill in 2006. Details on the draft bills are below. (CRS also has a summary here - pdf.)

Meanwhile, the House went ahead and put part of its bill into effect, voting the week of September 11 on rules to require all earmarks' sponsors be identified (except in trade provisions, many tax provisions, managers' amendments and earmarks inserted by senators). The Senate considered following suit by passing its own rules - on gifts, meals and lobbyist disclosure requirements and identifying earmark sponsors - but it didn't happen in '06.

What's doing in 2007

House Rules:

In January, the House dived into 2007 by passing new rules to ban all gifts and lobbyist-funded trips (including gifts and trips paid for by organizations that employ lobbyists) as well as require that all earmark sponsors a) be made public and b) certify that they have no personal wealth to gain by the earmark. Similar to earmarks, tariff cuts that benefit ten or fewer companies also have to go public with their sponsors under the new rule (WP). Being "rules," the new guidelines only apply to the House and don't have the power of law. (The Senate is considering making similar rules in 2008.)

Lobby reform bill:

Before checking out for summer vacation, Congress passed a final lobby reform bill that covered wide terrain (from LAT & WP):

  • Revolving doors: Senators would have to wait two years after leaving office before they could sign on as a lobbyist. (House members' downtime didn't budge and is still one year.)

  • Bundling: Lobbyists would have to go public every time they "bundle" more than $15,000 for a congressperson within 6 months.

  • Traveltime: House members would be barred from flying in corporate jets; senators could take corporate rides but they would have to pay the going charter rate. Lobbyists could pay for senators' educational trips, but they wouldn't be able to go along for the ride.

  • Earmarks: Senators have to come clean with all their earmarks 48 hours before a bill is voted on; they also have to certify that they and their family aren't financially benefiting from the earmark. Senators could then object to any earmark in a bill and vote to remove it before final passage. (Note: early reports from the NYT suggest that fording lawmakers to come clean with earmarks is not as effective as it was hoped to be: they're either finding ways to "cloak" their earmarks, or they're just plain proud of them.)

  • Full disclosure: Lobbyists would have to report all their own contributions to lawmaker's campaigns, libraries, events and charities.

  • Gifts and meals: A no-no for senators to accept.

  • Pensions: Lawmakers will no longer get theirs if they're convicted of bribery or perjury.

  • Bashes: Lobbyists can no longer throw them for lawmakers at convention time.

  • Restricted access: Lobbyists' privileges to access Capitol Hill's gym, parking lots and chambers were largely revoked.

  • Holds barred: Senators could no longer put "secret holds" on bills to keep them from going to the floor for a vote.

What didn't make it in

Over the past two years, lawmakers batted around a bunch of other ideas - many of which didn't make it in to the final bill:

  • Limiting earmarks: Limit earmark requests to 3 per member (last year the average was 25 per member) - or set a percentage cap for earmarks in each spending bill.

  • Banning earmarks: Ban earmarks altogether - or not allow any earmark to go on a spending bill unless it's already been voted through on an authorization bill. (What's the difference?)

  • Line-item veto: Give the president a "line item veto" so he has the power to nix earmarks without vetoing an entire bill. (WP) The Supreme Court in 1998 said line-item vetos are unconstitutional, but the current proposals get around the Supremes objections by saying the president has to send bills back to Congress for a final vote after he's taken his pen to them. Congress may vote for a line-item veto over the summer as a separate bill.

  • Independent watchdog: Efforts to create an independent "Office of Public Integrity" to oversee the lobbyists' disclosures and investigate ethics complaints in Congress or, similarly, to set up a commission to investigate ethics complaints didn't get into '07s lobby bill. But in '08, the House did get around to setting up an independent "Office of Congressional Ethics" that could initiate its own investigations. (WP & WP & NYT) The quasi-independent office will be made up of six members appointed for four years (3 appointed by each party) and will have to look into all complaints, forwarding the serious ones on to the House Ethics Committtee. Outside groups, however, couldn't bring any complaints.

  • set new limits for 527 organizations, requiring they follow the same fundraising rules as other political action committees,

What may not have made it in

Either the dailies aren't reporting on them, or these suggestions also didn't make it into the final bill.

  • Grassroots activity. There was talk about forcing lobbyists to report all of their grassroots activities.

  • Tariff earmarks. Similar to the House rules, the senate bill also required earmarked tariff cuts be exposed.

Meanwhile, the House started to vote on its '08 spending bills with earmark sponsors included (except for the Homeland Security and Military Construction bills - it's a long political story which you can read here). (Note: Dems kept "new" earmarks out of the '07 budget, although earmarks that were in the '06 budget will continue to be funded - NYT.)

So there'll be fewer earmarks now, right?

There are early signs that earmarks may not yet be legislative history: the New York Times describe creative ways for lawmakers to hide earmarks, that is, when they're not just out and out proud to sponsor them. A November '07 NYT article suggests that while earmarks may have dwindled, they're not disappearing anytime soon. A report from Citizens Against Government Waste similarly shows that earmarks are down - but not out. And even if you can get rid of earmarks, there may still be "soft earmarks" (NYT).

And now for some facts

How much goes into the lobby industry:

  • $1.45 billion in 1999 OpenSecrets and $2.4 billion in 2003 PublicIntegrity (for comparison's sake, the national parties raised $1.8 billion in 2004 - OS)

  • PoliticalMoneyLine's numbers are lower:

    • $1.2 billion in 2005

    • $1.1 billion in 2004

    • $0.8 billion in 1999

How much lobbyists raise for congressmembers through Political Action Committees:

  • Unfortunately, we didn't find an airtight number. PublicIntegrity says that PACs and campaign committees with lobbyists acting as their treasurers raised $525 million between 1998-2006. The other number we can give you is the total that PAC's gave congressional candidates - which is $580 million over a 2-year period ('99 - '00). (Census)

Earmarks - how much we're spending depends on who you ask:

  • $17 billion in the 2006 budget (GOP estimate, according to Congress Daily)

  • $27 billion in all 2005 bills (WSJ)

  • $53 billion in 2004 (WP)

  • For comparison's sake: total federal spending in a given year is about $2.5 trillion. (CBO)

Progress? As of March 23, 2006 Congress Daily reported that requests for earmarks were down 43% from the same time the year before (just number of requests - Congress Daily doesn't report on total dollar value). Even more promising, the NYT is reporting that earmarks are backfiring in at least one way - voters seem to be unimpressed with how much funding their reps are bringing home and are voting out some of the biggest pork winners. (NYT)

Opinions

  • Free up campaign finance - and give the president the power to impound funds - from Daniel Henninger of the WSJ.

  • Make earmarks more transparent and give the president the power to ditch earmarks from WSJ editorial.

  • The Washington Post explains the connection between lawmakers, lobbyists, Political Action Committees and business/special interest groups.

  • Lobbyists explain why limits on trips and paper work for more disclosures would cut down on the good work they do. Another explains how a ban would cut off support for worthy causes.

  • Another WSJ op-ed points out that limiting lobbying rules won't have an impact on lobbying from local government agencies.

  • A former SEC chairman says transparency is the answer.

  • The example of the Ripon Society, courtesy of Washington Post, suggests that where there's money there will be a corrupting way.

  • Jeffrey Birnbaum advocates transparency, but also removing money entirely from politics.

  • A Washington Post editorial warns that lobbying still serves a purpose so shouldn't be regulated out of existence.

  • The Heritage Foundation would ban earmarks outright or at least make them transparent.

  • The Brookings Institute thinks Congress needs to behave more responsibly in general.

  • Jeff Flake (Republican Representative) explains how earmarks are used as trade-offs to get representatives to okay spending bills.

  • The Washington Post editors like the idea of an independent enforcement body.

  • Grass roots organizers say new disclosure rules would be a burden and restrict their freedom of speech.

  • The Washington Post reports that lobbyists won't have a hard time getting around the new rules to wield their influence.

  • The New York Times editors pull no punches in their criticism of the House's lobbyist bill.

Updated March 14, 2008

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.