Some Democrats Have Second Thoughts About Lobbying Reform

House Democratic leaders still face significant doubts within their own caucus over how to handle lobbying reform.

At a private, members-only meeting Tuesday, Democrats differed over an emerging plan to impose new restrictions on lobbyists, staff and lawmakers, according to some members who attended the meeting.

Some Democrats, such as Representative Christopher Murphy, a freshman from Connecticut, said that failure to deliver on their campaign promises to clean up Congress would be damaging now and in next year’s election. He was one of a half-dozen freshmen to speak on the topic.

“Whether or not we clean up Congress might be the defining issue in my race,” Mr. Murphy said afterward. “The Republicans are getting more like the Democrats on the big issues. What’s going to be left is whether or not people feel Washington has changed.”

But other Democrats predicted that despite the legislation’s political appeal, it could stanch the flow of important sources of money.

Representative Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, attacked the leadership-backed plan on two key fronts. First, it unfairly limits the ability of members to benefit from the bundling of campaign contributions by companies and big fund-raisers. And second, he said, the plan unwisely prohibits former lawmakers from lobbying for two years after they leave Congress; the current ban is one year.

“Saying that you can’t become a lobbyist? That’s not democracy …. That’s un-American,” Mr. Baca said. “If you’re not wealthy, what are you going to do for two years—sit out?”

Several members said the Democrats might consider lessening the ban’s impact so that it doesn’t cover all lobbying activities. “I don’t think we can keep anybody from taking employment,” said Representative Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Rules Committee.

Echoing Mr. Baca’s concerns about the bundling issue, Representative Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) said the Congressional Black Caucus has been worried that placing new restraints on bundling might depress a member’s ability to raise money. “Many of the programs we’ve launched in recent years resulted from lobbyists collecting contributions for us,” he said.

“Bundling is difficult to handle,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged earlier in the day. “Defining what bundling is is difficult.”

In the past, Mr. Hoyer has advocated restraint to make sure that Congress didn’t overreact to lobbying and ethics scandals.

Despite great differences of opinion over how to handle bundling and the myriad aspects of lobbying reform, Democrats plan to move forward with a bill and get it to the floor shortly. “My expectation is we’ll bring it to the floor next week,” Mr. Hoyer said.

Mr. Cleaver described the meeting as a “very, very candid discussion.” He said hoped his leadership would hear the concerns raised there.

“I would like to believe,” he added, “that this is an ongoing process, that what we say matters, that this is not just an exercise in futility.”