LEGISLATIVE TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY ACT OF 2007
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Mr. OBAMA. Madam President, I come to the floor to speak in strong support of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.
First of all, let me commend the Presiding Officer for the outstanding work she has done in helping to shepherd this process through. It is wonderful work. I think the American people very much appreciate the improvements that are being made to our political process as a consequence. I also commend Senator Reid for his outstanding leadership on this bill. I especially thank my good friend, Senator Feingold, with whom I have worked closely on this issue over the past year and a half.
The bill before us today could not be more urgently needed. For too long, the American people have seen lobbyists treat the legislative process like a game, using targeted contributions to maximize their leverage. For too long, people have believed their voice and interests have been drowning in a sea of lobbyist money and influence in Washington.
This is not the first time we have faced a crisis of confidence in government. Around the turn of the last century, wealth was becoming more concentrated in the hands of a few robber barons, railroad tycoons, and oil magnates. It was an era known as the Gilded Age. It was made possible by a government that played along. But when President Theodore Roosevelt took office, he wouldn't play along. He devoted his Presidency to busting trusts, breaking up monopolies, and doing his best to give the American people a shot at the American dream once more.
America needs this kind of leadership more than ever. It needs leadership that sees government not as a tool to enrich well-connected friends and high-priced lobbyists but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American.
We cannot settle for a second Gilded Age in America. Yet we find ourselves once more in the midst of a new economy, where more wealth is in danger of falling into fewer hands, where CEO pay grows from year to year as the average worker's pay remains stagnant, where Americans are struggling like never before to pay their medical bills or kids' tuition or high gas prices, all the while the profits of drug and insurance and oil industries have never been higher.
Once again we are faced with the politics that makes all of this possible. In recent years, the doors to Congress and the White House have been thrown wide open to an army of Washington lobbyists who turned our Government into a game only they can afford to play. Year after year, they stand in the way of our progress as a country. They stop us from addressing the issues that matter most to our people.
Let's take health care, just as one example. The drug and insurance industry spent $1 billion in lobbying over the last decade. They got what they paid for when their friends in Congress broke the rules and twisted arms to push through a prescription drug bill that actually made it illegal for our own Government to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drug prices. Because reform has been blocked up until now, there are parents and grandparents in this country who are walking into the drugstore and wondering how their Social Security check is going to cover a prescription that is more expensive than it was a month ago, who are being forced to choose between their medicine and groceries because they can no longer afford both.
Let me be clear, I do not begrudge businesses trying to make a profit. I do not begrudge them hiring lobbyists to plead their case before Congress. It is protected political speech, and we appreciate that there are many lobbyists who represent their clients well and fairly. But it is time we had a Congress that tells drug companies or oil companies or the insurance industry that, while they may get a seat at the table in Washington, they don't get to buy every single chair. We need to put an end to the prevailing culture in this town, and that is what we have been trying to do for the past couple of years.
Last year, Congress came up with a somewhat watered-down version of reform.
I, along with others, such as Senator Feingold and the Senator from Arizona, who is about to speak, Mr. McCain, voted against it because we thought we could do better.
In January, I came back with Senator Feingold, and we set a high bar for reform. I am pleased to report that the bill before us today comes very close to what we proposed. By passing this bill, we will ban gifts and meals and end subsidized travel on corporate jets; we will close the revolving door between Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street; and we will make sure the American people can see all the pet projects lawmakers are trying to pass before they are actually voted on.
We will do something more. Over the objections of powerful voices in both parties, we will ensure that our laws shine a bright light on how lobbyists help fill the campaign coffers of Members of Congress by bundling contributions from others. Because an era in which soft money is prohibited, the real measure of a lobbyist's influence is not how much money he has contributed, it is how much money he is raising from others.
For too long, this practice has been hidden from public view. But today we can change that. I am pleased the amendment I have offered on bundling is part of this bill. I wish to thank Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, who fought so hard to get this provision included in the House bill. As the Washington Post described the bundling provision earlier this year:
No single change would add more public understanding of how money really operates in Washington.
So there is a lot of good in this bill. I truly hope and believe it will change the way we do business in Washington.
Let's not forget, though, there is still some more we need to do. One of the things I have argued is necessary to have on this is an independent entity to enforce ethics rules in Congress. Because no matter how well we police our own conduct, as long as we are our own prosecutor, judge, and jury, the public will never have complete trust in our decisions. So far, that is a fight I have lost. But I will continue to support independent enforcement because I believe it is in our Nation's best interests.
I also believe that if we are serious about change, we need to have a real discussion about public financing for Congressional elections. Because even if we can stop lobbyists from buying us lunch or taking us out on junkets, they will still be able to attend our fundraisers, and that is access the average American does not have.
In our democracy, the price of access and influence should be nothing more than your voice and your vote. That should be enough for health care reform. That should be enough for a real energy policy. That should be enough to ensure our Government is still the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American.
It is time to show the American people we have the courage to change the prevailing culture in this city. It is time to give people confidence in their Government again. We have a chance to start doing it with this bill.
I proudly support this legislation. I once again thank the chair for her outstanding work in moving this forward. I urge all my colleagues to support the legislation.
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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I respond to my friend from Wisconsin that that is, indeed, the case. The bill requires candidate committees, political party committees, and leadership PACs to report contributions bundled by lobbyists if those contributions total more than $15,000 in a 6-month period. Persons whose bundling has to be reported include individuals, lobbying firms, or lobbying organizations registered or listed on registrations filed under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and political committees established or administered by each registrant or individual listed lobbyist. These persons also include any agent acting on behalf of a registered lobbyist, lobbying firm, or lobbying organization. Thus, if the CEO of a lobbying organization is raising money as an agent of the organization, his activities are covered by the legislation and must be reported. But employees of a lobbying organization, including a CEO, who are not lobbyists listed on the organization's lobbying disclosure reports are not covered, unless they are acting as agents for the organization.
The definition of bundled contributions includes contributions (i) ``forwarded from the contributor or contributors to the committee'' and (ii) contributions ``received by the committee from a contributor or contributors, but credited by the committee or candidate involved . . . to the [lobbyist] through records, designations, or other means of recognizing that a certain amount of money has been raised by the [lobbyist].''
Part (i) of the definition means that any contributions that are physically handled by the lobbyist and are transferred, delivered, or sent to a campaign are considered to be bundled. But in addition, under part (ii), if contributions sent directly to a campaign by the contributors are ``credited'' to the lobbyist, they are also bundled. The ``credit'' doesn't have to be written or recorded because the definition includes ``other means of recognizing that a certain amount of money has been raised.'' So if a lobbyist tells a candidate that he has raised a certain amount of money for the campaign, the lobbyist should be credited with that amount of fundraising, and the bundling must be reported, assuming, of course, that the threshold amount of contributions is met within the 6-month period. This was what we were trying to get at in the amendment that passed the Senate in January--to cover contributions that were physically collected by a lobbyist and transferred to a campaign, contributions that were formally recorded by a campaign as having been raised by a lobbyist, and contributions that a candidate or a campaign was aware had been raised by a lobbyist.
Mr. FEINGOLD. I agree with that. With respect specifically to fundraisers hosted or cohosted by lobbyists, my view is that virtually all such events would be covered by this provision. Is that how the Senator from Illinois sees it as well?
Mr. OBAMA. Yes, I agree with that view. At many fundraisers, the host of the event collects the checks and gives them to a representative of the campaign. So that would be covered because the contributions have been ``forwarded'' to the campaign. But at some events, a representative of the campaign, or even the candidate, physically receives checks directly from contributors as they arrive or leave, and of course, some checks may be sent in afterward. In that case, the campaign knows the total amount raised, and knows the lobbyist who hosted the fundraiser is responsible for those contributions. Even if no formal records are kept about the money raised at the event, although most campaigns obviously do keep such records, the campaign has credited the lobbyist with that fundraising and it must be reported, as long as the threshold amount is met.
Mr. FEINGOLD. That is my understanding as well of section 204. It requires, however, that a candidate or campaign know that a lobbyist has raised a certain amount of money, not that they are just generally aware that the lobbyist has been fundraising for the campaign.
And it should be understood as well that the term ``raised'' in section 204 includes but is broader than the term ``solicited,'' which is defined in the FEC regulations issued to implement the campaign finance laws. For example, even if a lobbyist does not make a solicitation for a contribution, as the term ``solicit'' has been defined in FEC regulations, the lobbyist will still have ``raised'' a contribution if the lobbyist facilitated the contribution by hosting or cohosting a fundraising event that brought in the contribution.
Mr. OBAMA. That brings up a question that I wanted to clarify. In a situation when a fundraising event is cohosted by a number of different lobbyists, I am concerned that some might want to avoid reporting bundled contributions by dividing up the total receipts of a fundraising event among many sponsors or cohosts of the event. Certainly, that was not our intention. Does my friend from Wisconsin agree with me?
Mr. FEINGOLD. Yes, the purpose of the bundling reporting provision is to get as much disclosure as possible of bundling by lobbyists. In the provision, we have specifically asked the FEC to keep that purpose in mind as it promulgates regulations. The bill requires a committee to report ``each person'' who ``provided 2 or more bundled contributions'' in excess of the ``applicable threshold,'' which is an aggregate amount of $15,000 in a 6-month period. When two or more lobbyists are jointly involved in providing the same bundled contributions--as, for instance, in the case of a fundraising event co-hosted by two or more lobbyists--then each lobbyist is responsible for and should be treated as providing the total amount raised at the event, for purposes of applying the applicable threshold to the funds raised by that lobbyist, and for purposes of reporting by the committee of ``the aggregate amount'' of bundled contributions ``provided by each'' registered lobbyist ``during the covered period.''
It would be acceptable, of course, to report that certain funds were raised jointly in a single event so that by crediting each of the lobbyists involved with the total amount and reporting each lobbyist on the new schedule, the campaign does not suggest that the total amount of contributions bundled is far greater than the amount actually raised. But a campaign should not be able to avoid disclosing, for example, that three lobbyists raised $30,000 in a single fundraiser by claiming that each lobbyist has been credited with only one-third of the total amount. If this evasion were allowed, reporting for any fundraising event could be avoided simply by adding enough lobbyist cohosts for the event so that all of the lobbyists fall below the threshold. We certainly did not intend that result.
Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I appreciate the explanations and clarifications offered by the Senator from Wisconsin. The provision in the bill is aimed at requiring the disclosure of bundling, not prohibiting bundling. It must be broadly interpreted by the Federal Election Commission, consistent with its purpose. Indeed, section 204 specifically directs the FEC ``to provide for the broadest possible disclosure'' of bundling activities.
Mr. FEINGOLD. I agree. The Commission should not allow evasion or game playing of any kind, by campaigns, candidates, or lobbyists, to avoid reporting the activities of lobbyists. Section 204, the bundled contributions reporting section, along with section 203, which requires reports of campaign contributions and other payments by lobbyists themselves, is about giving information to the American people about how lobbyists provide financial assistance to Members of Congress and candidates. This information will allow the public to understand much better how Washington works. I congratulate the Senator from Illinois for successfully seeing his amendment through the process and into the final bill.
Mr. OBAMA. I commend my good friend from Wisconsin for his leadership on this issue. He has championed ethics and lobbying reform for many years, and he deserves much of the credit for the crafting of this important bill.