A strength of any reform discussion is careful attention to the role of campaign finance in lobbying activity. Critics of standard reform proposals complain that “insiders” are attempting to regulate the political activity of “outsiders”, but this objection has less force when campaign finance restrictions fall more heavily on the insiders – – on legislators and the lobbyists who may build relationships with them by raising and giving campaign money.
So Senator Michael Bennet, supported by the reform community, has developed a bill entitled the Lobbying and Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2015, which pursues reform objectives from the “inside.” It would expand the number of those who are required to register as lobbyists, and it would limit the influence they amass through the fundraising known as bundling. And the Members of Congress that they lobby could not solicit them for contributions when Congress is in legislative session. The focus here is on campaign finance as a lubricant of successful lobbying, and on any temptation in official circles to link the performance of the public’s business to campaign support.
The next question is– how would this reform, if enacted, work, and how effective would it be in meeting the goals set for it?
If the experience so far with bundling regulation is any guide, modest expectations might be the best bet. Bundling is defined as money raised in ways that enable the bundler to receive credit or recognition from the candidate. A relatively recent rule would compel political committees to disclose the receipt from registered lobbyists of contributions bundled under this definition, if the total amount exceeds in the aggregate a certain threshold amount ($17,600 in 2015). Many if not most practitioners would say that the requirement is easily evaded and that there is vastly more bundling going on than reflected in the reports filed.
Is this circumvention, or the sheer difficulty of writing a rule to satisfy this goal? It’s not clear, except that it hasn’t really worked very well. The new rule proposed by Senator Bennet adds to the existing disclosure rule a a dollar limitation, subjecting all bundling and giving by registered lobbyists to one contribution limit ($2,700), the result of which could be more incentive to get around new fundraising (bundling) restrictions.
And for every reform enacted with little prospects of success, there is inevitably backlash. Congress is charged with writing a weak rule, or the FEC with failing to enforce it, or politicians for colluding yet again with their donors to cheat on it. A rule written to shore up public confidence deals it yet another blow.
It is not hard to imagine similar frustrations with a rule that bans Member solicitation of contributions when Congress is in session. Rules barring the solicitations of one kind or another have all run into their share of enforcement difficulties. See, e.g. Shays v. Federal Election Commission, 414 F.3d 76 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The questions that arise include when a solicitation is express or implied, and whether someone else asking for the money is doing so as the “agent” of the candidate. There is no reason to believe that the fate of any new ban on solicitation will be different.
But before there is a problem with a rule, the rule must exist, and the responsibility for writing it is the Federal Election Commission’s. This is a major complication for fresh reform proposals: the very FEC regularly, vociferously attacked is the one relied on for the construction of implementing regulations and then for their enforcement. The rules are hard to write, and the FEC faces reformers’ suspicion that it is especially ill-equipped for the task.
The Lobby and Campaign Finance Reform Act is designed, in broad outline, to target sources of questionable influence on the “inside,” and it fares well on this measure of thoughtful policy. It in the next steps, in the transition from outline to successful implementation, that the trouble would begin.