February 27, 2006

Dear Senator,

The undersigned groups urge you to support strong and effective reforms to respond to the current Washington lobbying scandals, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (Committee) marks up legislation to address these scandals.

The groups include the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

At a time of deep public concern about the lobbying and corruption scandals in Washington and strong public support for tough measures to address these problems, it is essential for the Committee to adopt real reform measures to address the abuses that have occurred.

We urge you to adopt effective reforms that will strengthen ethics enforcement, curb abuses and increase disclosure of lobbying activities.

Enforcement

The ethics enforcement process in Congress is broken and in need of basic repair. The House Ethics Committee collapsed in 2005 and did not even operate for the entire year. The congressional ethics committees have not conducted any investigation of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals during this Congress.

It is essential for Congress to establish a new means for overseeing and enforcing congressional ethics rules if new, and old, rules are going to be effective in the future.

As a Washington Post editorial (February 25, 2006) stated, “Tightening lobbying rules without doing something to improve enforcement would be like overhauling the tax code while abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.”

The need for strengthened ethics enforcement was recognized last week by a bipartisan group of Senators who issued a public statement that listed “strengthened ethics guidelines, training, and enforcement,” as one the issues that should be “included and addressed in any legislative reform package.”

We urge the Committee to adopt provisions to provide for independent, nonpartisan and professional ethics oversight and enforcement, either through the creation of an Office of Public Integrity in Congress or the establishment of a Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission.

Curb Abuses

One of the principal abuses in Congress today, highlighted by the Abramoff scandals, is the payment for trips by Members and staff by private interests seeking to influence congressional decisions. This is an area where disclosure will not solve the problems. Disclosure is already required for privately-financed trips and this has not stopped widespread abuses from occurring.

We urge the Committee to adopt legislation to prohibit private interests seeking to influence congressional decisions from paying for trips for Members and staff. We also urge the Committee to adopt similar restrictions for federal judges.

A similar travel problem exists concerning private interests seeking to influence Congress who subsidize Members’ air travel at deeply discounted costs by providing company planes to Members at first class fares rather than normal charter rates. This provides substantial financial benefits and great convenience to Members, while allowing lobbyists to accompany Members on the flights and have them as a captive audience.

According to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News poll (January 27, 2006), an overwhelming majority of the public – 72 to 21 percent – support prohibiting the practice of allowing lawmakers to travel on jets provided by corporations and lobbyists for the cost of flying on a commercial airline.

We urge the Committee to adopt legislation to require private interests to charge market rates, i.e. charter rates, when they provide Members with their company planes for trips, including trips by Members in connection with their official duties and Members’ campaign trips.

The single most important way in which lobbyists gain influence with members of Congress is by raising and providing campaign contributions for the Members’ campaign committees and leadership PACs. Lobbyists sponsor fundraising events, bundle contributions or otherwise solicit and arrange contributions for Members, in amounts that far exceed the limits on the amounts that they can directly contribute to Members.

We urge the Committee to adopt legislation to break the campaign money nexus between lobbyists and Members by greatly reducing the contribution limits for lobbyists and by prohibiting lobbyists from raising contributions for Members or serving as officials for campaign committees and leadership PACs.

The current gift rules contain a gaping loophole which allows lobbyists and others to finance lavish parties to “honor” or “recognize” a Member or Members at the national political party conventions. This loophole has allowed lobbyists and other private influence-seekers to spend six-figure amounts to pay for parties that are, in essence, parties given by the Members.

We urge the Committee to adopt legislation to ensure that private interests are prohibited from paying for parties to “honor” or “recognize” a Member or Members at national political party conventions.

The current revolving door restrictions allow former members of Congress to immediately engage in lobbying activities as long as they do not make direct lobbying contacts with Members and congressional staff for one year. This means that former Members can leave Congress and immediately take charge of the lobbying activities of corporations, trade associations and other groups, thereby making the current revolving door provisions ineffectual.

We urge the Committee to adopt revolving door restrictions for former members of Congress to extend the current one-year “cooling off” period to two years, and to prohibit them during this period from engaging in lobbying activities, as well as lobbying contacts.

Increased Disclosure

There is no disclosure currently required for many of the ways in which lobbyists provide financial benefits to help members of Congress.

We support banning lobbyists from raising campaign contributions for Members. If this is allowed to continue, however, lobbyists should be required to disclose on their lobbying reports, the contributions they make, the fundraisers they hold and the contributions they bundle for Members. Lobbyists should also be required to disclose all of the other ways in which they provide financial benefits to help Members, such as paying for events to benefit Members, making contributions to charities controlled by Members and paying for conferences and retreats held by Members.

We urge the Committee to adopt legislation to require disclosure of all of the various ways that lobbyists and lobbying organizations provide contributions and financial benefits to members of Congress.

There is currently no disclosure required by lobbying organizations and professional grassroots lobbying firms of the huge sums being spent on grassroots lobbying campaigns.

This is the case despite the fact that the total amounts being spent on grassroots lobbying campaigns may well exceed the total amounts being spent on direct lobbying activities, which are required to be disclosed. The Abramoff lobbying scandals illustrated how large amounts of money were being secretly spent to conduct grassroots lobbying campaigns.

Today, a professional grassroots lobbying firm can spend large sums on a paid advertising campaign to stimulate grassroots lobbying for the passage of a tax break for the oil industry, or an advocacy group can spend large sums on a paid advertising
campaign to stimulate lobbying against a judicial nominee, without any information being provided to citizens and members of Congress on the amounts being spent on the lobbying campaigns.

We urge the Committee to adopt grassroots lobbying disclosure provisions to ensure that the public receives basic information about the huge sums being spent on grassroots lobbying activities to stimulate lobbying campaigns by the public.

The lobbying information currently provided to the public is neither timely nor provided in a way that is easily accessible or useable by the public. As a result, the purpose of disclosure is seriously undermined by not having the information effectively available for the public and the media. There is also no information provided on whom lobbyists are lobbying.

We urge the Committee to adopt legislation to require quarterly filings for lobbying reports, to require that such reports be filed electronically and made available on the Internet in an easily searchable way, and to require lobbyists to file a list of the Members’ offices and congressional committees they lobbied during each reporting period.

Citizens expect and deserve strong, effective lobbying and ethics reforms to respond to the lobbying and corruption scandals in Washington. We urge the Committee to adopt the reforms set forth in our letter and to fight for their passage by the Senate.

Campaign Legal Center
Common Cause
Democracy 21
League of Women Voters
Public Citizen
U.S. PIRG