Laws Regulating Federal Lobbyists

Believe It or Not, There Really Are Laws Regulating Lobbyists

Former lobbyists Jack Abramoff getting out of a car in Miami
Former Lobbyist Jack Abramoff Pleads Guilty To Two Additional Felonies In Miami. Carlo Allegri / Getty Images

In public opinion polls, lobbyists rank somewhere between pond scum and nuclear waste. In every election, politicians vow never to be “bought out” by lobbyists, but often do.

Briefly, lobbyists get paid by businesses or special interest groups to win the votes and support of members of the U.S. Congress and state legislatures. 

Indeed, to many people, lobbyists and what they do represent the main cause of corruption in federal government.

But while lobbyists and their influence in Congress sometimes seem to be out of control, they really do have to follow laws. In fact, lots of them. 

Background: The Laws of Lobbying

While each state legislature has created its own set of laws regulating lobbyists, there are two specific federal laws regulating the actions of lobbyists targeting the U.S. Congress. 

Recognizing the need to make the lobbying process more transparent and accountable to the American people, Congress enacted the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995. Under this law, all lobbyists dealing with the U.S. Congress are required to register with both the Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate.

Within 45 days of becoming employed or retained to lobby on behalf of a new client, the lobbyist must register his or her agreement with that client with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.

As of 2015, more than 16,000 federal lobbyists were registered under the LDA.

However, merely registering with Congress was not enough to prevent some lobbyists from abusing the system to the point of triggering total disgust for their profession.

Jack Abramoff Lobbying Scandal Spurred New, Tougher Law

Public hatred for lobbyists and lobbying reached its peak in 2006 when Jack Abramoff, working as a lobbyist for the rapidly growing Indian casino industry, pleaded guilty to charges of bribing members of Congress, some of whom also ended up in prison as a result of the scandal.

In the aftermath of the Abramoff scandal, Congress in 2007 passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) fundamentally changing the ways in which lobbyists were allowed to interact with members of Congress. As a result of HLOGA, lobbyists are prohibited from “treating” Congress members or their staff to things like meals, travel, or entertainment events.

Under HLOGA, lobbyists must file Lobbying Disclosure (LD) reports during each year revealing all contributions they made to campaign events for members of Congress or other expenditures of efforts they make that might in any way personally benefit a member of Congress.

Specifically, the required reports are:

  • The LD-2 report showing all lobbying activities for each organization they are registered to represent must be filed quarterly; and
  • The LD-203 report disclosing certain political “contributions” to politicians must be filed twice a year.

What Can Lobbyists ‘Contribute’ to Politicians?

Lobbyists are allowed to contribute money to federal politicians under the same campaign contribution limits placed on individuals. During the current (2016) federal election cycle, lobbyists cannot give more than $2,700 to any candidate and $5,000 to any Political Action Committees (PAC) in each election.

Of course, the most coveted “contributions” lobbyists make to politicians are the money and votes of the members of the industries and organizations they work for. In 2015 for example, the nearly 5 million members of the National Rifle Association gave a combined $3.6 million to federal politicians opposed to tighter gun control policy.

In addition, lobbyist must file quarterly reports listing their clients, the fees they received from each client and the issues on which they lobbied for each client.

Lobbyists who fail to comply with these laws face could face both civil and criminal penalties as determined by the Office of the U.S. Attorney.

Penalties for Violation of the Lobbying Laws

The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House, along with U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) are responsible for ensuring that lobbyists comply with the LDA activity disclosure law.

Should they detect a failure to comply, the Secretary of the Senate or the Clerk of the House notifies the lobbyist in writing. Should the lobbyist fail to provide an adequate response, the Secretary of the Senate or the Clerk of the House refers the case to the USAO. The USAO researches these referrals and sends additional noncompliance notices to the lobbyist, requesting that they file reports or terminate their registration. If USAO does not receive a response after 60 days, it decides whether to pursue a civil or criminal case against the lobbyist.

A civil judgment could lead to penalties up to $200,000 for each violation, while a criminal conviction —usually pursued when a lobbyist’s noncompliance is found to be knowing and corrupt—could lead to a maximum of 5 years in prison.

So yes, there are laws for lobbyists, but how many of those lobbyists are really doing the “right thing” by complying with the disclosure laws?

GAO Reports on Lobbyists’ Compliance with the Law

In an audit released on March 24, 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that during 2015, “most” registered federal lobbyists did file disclosure reports that included key data required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA).

According to the GAO’s audit, 88% of lobbyists properly filed initial LD-2 reports as required by the LDA. Of those properly filed reports, 93% included adequate documentation on income and expenses.

About 85% of lobbyists properly filed their required year-end LD-203 reports disclosing campaign contributions.

During 2015, federal lobbyists filed 45,565 LD-2 disclosure reports with $5,000 or more in lobbying activity, and 29,189 LD-203 reports of federal political campaign contributions.

The GAO did find that, as in years past, some lobbyists continued to properly disclose payments for certain “covered positions,” as paid congressional internships or certain executive agency positions provided as part of the lobbyists’ “contributions” to lawmakers.

GAO’s audit estimated that about 21% of all LD-2 reports filed by lobbyists in 2015 failed to disclose payments for at least one such covered position, despite the fact that most lobbyists told the GAO that they found the rules regarding reporting covered positions as being “very easy” or  “somewhat easy” to understand.

So love or hate them lobbyists are here to stay, and if we can learn one thing from what they do, it is that the influence of money in government is not that evil, as long as the government is going your way.