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House Closes Loopholes On Congressional Lobbyists Tax-Exempt Groups Will Have To Choose Grants Or Lobbying

Pledging to end 40 years of shadowy dealings with powerful special interests, the House Wednesday passed and sent to President Clinton a bill requiring thousands of unregistered lobbyists to disclose their purposes and sources of income.

The bipartisan bill, which passed by a 421-0 margin after its sponsors fought off repeated efforts to scuttle it with contentious amendments, was the second major internal reform measure to be adopted by Congress this year.

The first was the decision by the House and Senate to bar its members from accepting most gifts from lobbyists and other members of the public.

Still awaiting action in Congress is the most contentious reform of all: curbs on the way election campaigns are financed. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has called for a bipartisan commission to report on that issue by next May, but ardent House reformers in both parties say they want the commission to act by March 1.

Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, said passage of the gift ban and lobbying measures would provide “momentum for the effort to enact a campaign-finance reform bill, I hope as early as next summer.”

One of the lobbying bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. John Bryant, D-Texas, said, “The principal importance of this bill’s passage is that it goes to the deep concern of many people that unseen forces are influencing the outcome of legislation here. … With this legislation, if there’s heavy-handed lobbying going on, people will be able to see who’s doing it and why.”

President Clinton has said he will sign the measure.

The bill requires paid lobbyists - most of whom have simply chosen not to register in the past - to register, provide a list of their contacts in Congress and the executive branch, identify the issues on which they lobbied, and report how much they were paid to do so. That information will be kept on public record by the House and Senate clerks. For the most part, the bill does not restrict the ability of lobbyists to continue lobbying.

Under the bill, which goes into effect Jan. 1, lobbyists who failed to register could be slapped with a civil fine of up to $50,000.

In the Senate, which voted 98-0 for the bill last July, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan said the current law was so riddled with loopholes that federal law enforcers had simply thrown up their hands and declined to enforce it.”Lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity,” said Rep. Paul McHale, D-Pa., “but one best exercised with maximum public exposure. In politics, as elsewhere, sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

The bill also would sharply curtail the lobbying activities of certain large tax-exempt organizations, such as the National Rifle Association and the American Association of Retired Persons, by making them choose between receiving federal grants or lobbying Congress and the federal government.

Although the bill closes most of the longstanding loopholes in lobbying legislation, it does not require professional lobbyists to report their efforts to launch “grass-roots” campaigns to influence Congress.

Tags: politics