American League of Lobbyists President Howard Marlowe says it happens regularly when he bumps into fellow lobbyists. “They say, ‘Howard, you’re doing a great job.’ And I say, ‘Would you kindly join us, please?”’
Bolstering ALL’s membership is just one of the many challenges that Marlowe has outlined for 2012. He’s also seeking to tighten what he’s dubbed the “Newt Gingrich loophole” to cover lobbyists who aren’t legally required to register as such; require ethics training for lobbyists; toughen penalties for those who don’t report lobbying activities; and form alliances with other organizations.
All of those efforts, he hopes, can repair the considerable and ongoing damage that the Jack Abramoff scandal inflicted on the industry’s image.
“This is a man who scammed his clients, and now he’s scamming the public,” Marlowe said of Abramoff, who since his release from prison last year has been giving interviews purporting to reveal the shady side of his former profession. “He’s going to do it as long as people give him attention and money. [The fallout] will fade out over time — but we’re not over it.”
Marlowe, the longtime president of Marlowe & Co., took the reins of ALL a year ago. With 1,400 members, the organization comprises approximately 12 percent of the lobbyists in Washington. He said his goal is to have 5,000 members within the next three years, something that he said will require getting members of more large firms to come on board.
“We have some, but not as many as I’d like,” he acknowledged. “They’ve felt we’ve been a self-focused group that meets once a month for a board meeting and has a breakfast.”
Current federal law calls for registration as a lobbyist only if an individual spends at least 20 percent of time on covered lobbying activities. That exempts such figures as Gingrich, whose consulting firm worked for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, as well as other ex-members — most notably former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle — who’ve been hired to provide “strategic advice.” Marlowe said ALL plans to release a proposal in March that would lower the 20 percent threshold.
“We should count as lobbying everything related to strategizing, setting up meetings — if we hire a PR firm, if I hire you because you have contact with one of the key members, you should be required to disclose that,” he said.
One of the reasons that lobbying lapses occur, he continued, is because there are no effective consequences of not reporting them. All that generally results in such cases is that the secretary of the Senate and clerk of the House may or may not refer the lapse to the Justice Department. “We want to put some teeth into enforcement,” he said, citing the fines and other penalties that already are part of the law.
Since 2006, ALL has offered a lobbying certificate program featuring sessions on ethics and other issues that includes five core sessions plus an assortment of electives. The organization is working with George Washington University legislative affairs professor Steve Billet to enhance its effectiveness.
But Marlowe said he’d like to make ethics training mandatory for lobbyists, and increase confidence in the profession perhaps by having Congress publish a list of who has participated in such an effort. Although he said he would love for such sessions to be lengthy, he also said that, for practical purposes, “We don’t care if it’s two hours, one hour, whatever it may be.”
Marlowe said he realizes tackling these issues will be difficult, but hopes Congress can be persuaded to buy into them. He said his group will start talking to former members this month to gauge their reactions before proceeding to Capitol Hill. At the same time, he’s been reaching out “to every public interest organization that will talk to us,” including the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Responsive Politics and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
But in the end, much of what can get accomplished hinges on addressing a problem for which there is no apparent answer for now — the escalating flood of money in politics.
“The issue will be whether limits are placed upon what lobbyists can give, or how much or what they can do,” he said. “We’re into First Amendment issues here, and that’s why it’s such a knotty issue. At some point, the Supreme Court is going to have to deal with the First Amendment and the undermining of public confidence in government.”