Coalition letter to Senate in Support of Strong Ethics Reform

March 27, 2006



Coalition letter to Senate in Support of Strong Ethics Reform

Dear Senator:

Lobbying reform legislation is scheduled for Senate consideration on Monday.

Our organizations support strong, effective and comprehensive lobbying and ethics reforms as essential to address the corruption and lobbying scandals in Congress.

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

There are critical amendments that have been proposed to the lobbying legislation that, in some cases, would seriously damage and undermine the legislation, in other cases would greatly strengthen the bill.

The damaging amendments include a "poison pill" amendment by Senator Frist that would open gaping loopholes in the McCain-Feingold law by allowing political parties and federal candidates to use corrupting soft money to buy campaign ads on the Internet; and an amendment by Senator Bennett to strike the requirement that professional lobbying firms disclose their currently secret spending to stimulate lobbying by the public of Congress.

The strengthening amendments include an amendment by Senators McCain, Lieberman, Collins and Obama to strengthen the oversight and enforcement of Senate ethics rules and the lobbying disclosure laws; and an amendment by Senator Feingold to provide that the ban on gifts from lobbyists also apply to the lobbying organizations employing the lobbyists.

We urge you to vote against the "poison pill" amendment proposed by Senator Frist and to vote against any legislation that includes this proposal to return corrupting soft money to federal elections.

We also urge you to vote against the Bennett amendment to prevent the public and Congress from knowing about the huge sums being spent by professional lobbying firms to stimulate lobbying by the public to influence Congressional decisions.

We urge you to vote for the McCain-Lieberman-Collins-Obama amendment to establish a new means for enforcing Senate ethics rules and the lobbying disclosure laws. We believe it is essential for the Senate to establish a publicly-credible and publicly-acceptable means for enforcing the Senate ethics rules.

We also urge you to support the Feingold amendment to ensure that the ban on gifts from lobbyists is effective by providing that the lobbyists' employers also cannot make such gifts.

Opening Huge Soft Money Loopholes

Senator Frist has introduced an amendment that, if enacted, would open gaping soft money loopholes in the campaign finance laws. The Frist amendment would allow federal candidates and political parties to once again use corrupting soft money in federal campaigns, activities which have been illegal since the enactment of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA).

BCRA, for example, prohibits a state party from using soft money for public communications that attack or promote federal candidates. The Frist bill would allow a state party to spend unlimited soft money to pay for campaign ads on the Internet that attack or promote federal candidates.

Thus, under the Frist bill a state political party would have to use hard money, subject to federal contribution limits, to pay for a campaign ad attacking or promoting a federal candidate that is run in The Washington Post.

The same state political party, however, could use corrupting unlimited soft money to pay for the same campaign ad attacking or promoting the same federal candidate that is run on www.washingtonpost.com.

This makes absolutely no sense and would be an absurd result.

The campaign finance laws also prohibit federal candidates from coordinating with corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals to use soft money to pay for campaign ads on the Internet that promote their candidacies or attack their opponents.

The Frist bill would allow this use of soft money in federal elections.

In striking down an FEC regulation identical in language to the Frist amendment, federal district court Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that the proposal "would permit rampant circumvention of the campaign finance laws and foster corruption or the appearance of corruption."

Senators should not vote to "foster corruption" and "permit rampant circumvention" of the campaign finance laws.

As an editorial in The New York Times (March 15, 2006) stated in opposing the proposal contained in the Frist and Hensarling bills:

It is imperative that the courageous lawmakers who supported the McCain-Feingold reform law four years ago stand together against making the Internet a cornucopia of political corruption. Wavering Democrats, in particular, need a strong leadership call to stand fast, despite campaign-year cravings for more money. Voters need to pay particular attention to which lawmakers endorse this unfettered sale of political influence.

An earlier editorial in The New York Times (November 1, 2005) stated about the proposal contained in the Frist and Hensarling bills:

[T]he Internet would become a free-fire zone without any limits on spending or reporting requirements. The bill uses freedom of speech as a fig leaf, pasted on in the guise of defending political bloggers from government censorship. . . . [T]his a bill to protect political bagmen, not bloggers."

An editorial in The Washington Post (October 11, 2005) similarly opposed the proposal contained in the Frist and Hensarling bills stating that it would carv[e]a huge cyber-loophole in the recent ban on huge 'soft money' contributions by corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals.. The concerns about the potentially corrupting influence of six-figure donations apply just as much if that cash is spent in cyberspace.

The Frist amendment, furthermore, is unnecessary to protect bloggers or other individuals on the Internet. There are alternative ways to provide such protections without opening huge soft money loopholes, such as through FEC regulations or through the approach developed by the highly regarded Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), which works to protect the rights and interests of Internet users.

The CDT approach has been incorporated into H.R. 4900, the "Internet Free Speech Protection Act of 2006," introduced by Representatives Tom Allen (D-ME) and Charles Bass (R-NH).

According to an op-ed by CDT officials in Roll Call (March 14, 2006):

H.R. 4900 protects bloggers and small speakers far better than does H.R. 1606 [the Hensarling bill, identical to the Frist amendment] and by design, it does not create other loopholes in the campaign finance laws. Those who truly want to protect bloggers and ordinary citizens should support H.R. 4900. Those whose real goal is to undermine campaign finance laws should support H.R. 1606, which provides only limited protection to online speakers."

We urge you to vote against the Frist amendment and to vote against any legislation that includes this amendment.

Enforcement of Senate Ethics Rules and Lobbying Disclosure Laws

Senators McCain, Lieberman, Collins and Obama have introduced an amendment to create an Office of Public Integrity work with the Senate Ethics Committee to help enforce the Senate ethics rules and the lobbying disclosure laws.

The absence of any publicly known efforts by the Senate and House Ethics Committees to investigate the worst congressional corruption and lobbying scandals in decades has resulted in a complete lack of public confidence in the Ethics Committees and their ability to effectively enforce the congressional ethics rules.

This problem, furthermore, has been exacerbated by the deep partisan divisions that exist in the Senate and the House, and that also undermine public confidence in the ability of members of Congress to enforce the ethics rules that govern their conduct.

As an editorial on February 25, 2006 in The Washington Post stated about the need for strengthening congressional ethics enforcement:

Tightening lobbying rules without doing something to improve enforcement would be like overhauling the tax code while abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.

Former Senator Howell Heflin (D-AL), who chaired the Senate Ethics Committee during its Keating Five investigation, said about the fundamental problem with the existing ethics enforcement system, "You censure someone, and the next day you're seeking their vote. There are just too many inherent problems with senators judging senators."

The McCain-Lieberman-Collins-Obama amendment would provide an independent, nonpartisan and professional Office of Public Integrity to work with the Senate Ethics Committee in a strengthened oversight and enforcement process. It would help build public credibility for ethics enforcement in the Senate, while leaving the responsibility for determining whether Senate ethics rules had been violated with the Senate Ethics Committee.

The Office is needed, furthermore, to establish a new, strengthened system for overseeing and enforcing the lobbying laws.

The establishment of an Office of Public Integrity would strengthen the Senate as an institution, help restore credibility to the Senate ethics enforcement process and greatly advance the interests of the public.

We urge you to support the McCain-Lieberman-Collins-Obama amendment to the lobbying disclosure legislation.

Disclosure of Grassroots Lobbying

The Bennett amendment would strike from the lobbying disclosure bill the requirement for professional lobbying firms to disclose to the public the amounts they spend on communications to stimulate the public to lobby Congress.

This disclosure requirement would, for the first time, bring to public light the huge amounts of money being spent for sophisticated, professional media advertising campaigns to influence legislative decisions by Congress.

The current Lobbying Disclosure Act requires disclosure of lobbying activities that involve direct contact with Congress. But there is no disclosure whatsoever required for professional grassroots lobbying firms that are retained to spend money on media campaigns to support or oppose legislation.

Today, for example, a professional grassroots lobbying firm can spend tens of millions of dollars on a paid advertising campaign to stimulate public lobbying for the passage of a tax break or the defeat of a judicial nominee, without any information being provided to citizens and members of Congress on the amounts being spent on these lobbying campaigns.

The pending legislation addresses this problem by requiring professional grassroots lobbying firms to register and to report the income they receive for conducting grassroots lobbying campaigns, and requiring those organizations that are already required to register under the law to also report the aggregate amount they spend on grassroots lobbying if the spending is significant - more than $25,000 per quarter.

The arguments being made against this provision are based on misconceptions.

The provision would not impair or restrict grassroots lobbying by any organization. It does not limit the amount any group can spend for such lobbying efforts.

The provision would not require any organization to disclose its membership list, or disclose any communications with its members. The provision specifically exempts an organization's communications with its members from the definition of grassroots lobbying.

A recent letter from a coalition of nonprofit groups organized by OMB Watch opposed the Bennett amendment and supports the grassroots lobbying provisions in the lobbying legislation The letter stated that the provisions in the bill "will help shed light on the 'sham' grassroots operations; all the while preserving the important role nonprofits can play in educating and mobilizing their members to better inform public policy decisions."

We urge you to vote against the Bennett amendment and in favor publicly disclosing the huge sums being spent by professional lobbying firms on media campaigns to influence congressional decisions.

Ban on Gifts

The lobbying disclosure bill, as amended, bans gifts from registered lobbyists.

The Feingold amendment would extend this gift ban to the registered lobbying organizations that employ the lobbyists, as well to the lobbyists themselves.

Without this amendment, the gift ban, including the ban on paying for meals and tickets to sporting and entertainment events, could be easily circumvented by lobbyists and the organizations that employ them by simply having the employers of the lobbyists provide the gifts or pay for the meals and tickets.

We urge you to vote for the Feingold amendment to ensure that the new gift ban contained in the lobbying disclosure legislation are effctive.

The public expects and deserves strong, effective and comprehensive lobbying and ethics reforms as essential to address the corruption and lobbying scandals in Congress.

We strongly urge you to vote for real, not cosmetic, lobbying and ethics reform legislation, and to vote against the "poison pill" amendment to return soft money to federal campaigns offered by Senator Frist, and the amendment to eliminate public disclosure about important lobbying activities offered by Senator Bennett.

Campaign Legal Center

League of Women Voters

Common Cause

Public Citizen

Democracy 21

U.S. PIRG


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