Under strong urging by Democratic leaders, the House on Thursday approved mandatory disclosure by lobbyists who round up campaign donations from others and "bundle" them together for lawmakers.
The 382-37 vote was a partial step toward fulfilling the Democrats' pledge to run a more ethical and open Congress. It was seen as a prelude to passage of a second ethics-related bill that would, among other things, require lawmakers to identify themselves when seeking "earmarks," or special spending items in bills.
Democratic leaders had to squelch a rebellion among colleagues who said the lobbying changes were going too far and might threaten their ability to raise campaign funds and land well-paid lobbying jobs when they leave Congress.
The most contentious issue involved requiring lobbyists to disclose so-called bundling practices, in which they solicit and collect campaign donations from several sources and deliver them to a favored lawmaker in one package. The long-employed practice is popular with many lawmakers, who find it easier than raising money check-by-check. It also is favored by lobbyists who find it helps them ingratiate themselves to lawmakers without having to divulge the role they play.
Democratic leaders suffered a minor setback when some of their freshmen members joined most Republicans in approving an amendment that party leaders opposed. The item, offered by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would require disclosure of lobbyists' bundled donations not only to individuals but also to so-called leadership PACs, which are campaign organizations especially favored by Democrats.
The amendment's adoption cleared the way for bipartisan approval of the overall bundling bill.
The Senate in January approved a lobbying package that would require disclosures of bundling and force former lawmakers to wait two years, rather than one, before becoming lobbyists after leaving Congress.
House members last week rejected the two-year "cooling off" period, prompting editorial writers, public watchdog groups and others to accuse Democrats of backing away from their clean-government promises. Party leaders, desperate to avoid further erosion, spent days imploring colleagues to back the bundling disclosure provision even though many rank-and-file members said there is nothing wrong with having lobbyists help raise campaign money.
"Through our bold and expanded ethics package, this new Congress is tackling the cozy relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers," Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said as the debate began. She is one of several Democratic freshmen who emphasized GOP ethical lapses in last year's elections.
Democratic leaders decided this week to make the bundling measure a separate bill rather than folding it into a larger package of proposed lobbying revisions. Had it been part of the larger bill, they said, enough Democratic opponents might have joined most Republicans in a procedural vote to stop the bill from reaching the House floor.
Under current law, individual campaign donors must report their contributions, but bundlers often remain anonymous. The new disclosure requirement would not apply to bundlers who are not lobbyists.
The companion lobbying bill would, among other things, require lawmakers to identify themselves when placing "earmarks," or targeted spending items, in bills. It also would codify a January House rules change that bars lawmakers and their employees from accepting meals, gifts or trips from lobbyists or organizations that employ lobbyists.
The Senate endorsed a similar rules change, but it will not take effect unless a lobbying bill is reconciled by the two chambers and signed into law.