Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle.
Playing by the lobbying rules is the first step in effective legislative outreach.
Does your association employ staff who spend at least 20 percent of their time interacting with members of Congress or the administration each quarter and are properly registered to lobby on behalf of your organization and its members?
If so, your association is subject to the requirements of the Lobbying and Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995 and the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) of 2007. Even advocacy veterans would do well to consult the following list of lobbying do's and don'ts, compiled with the help of Jeffrey P. Altman, a partner with McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP in Washington, DC.
Do acquaint yourself with the HLOGA's heightened registration and reporting requirements. Here's the gist: Registered associations are required to file—electronically and publicly—quarterly reports that list the names of their lobbyists, the issues on which they worked, and the approximate time that they and others in the organization spent on lobbying activities. These organizations also must file semiannual reports that list certain types of campaign contributions and must certify compliance with congressional ethics rules.
Don't even consider violating the congressional ethics rules—such as the gift and travel rules—especially after signing and submitting your semiannual reports. Doing so could subject your association and your lobbyists to fines of up to $200,000 and prison terms of up to five years.
Do get to know the LDA and IRS definitions related to time and expense tracking while lobbying. Educate your employees about them so their reports will be accurate and can be justified in case of an audit.
Don't think your nonlobbyist staffers can skirt the ethics rules while interacting with lawmakers. "If your association is registered [because you have lobbyists on staff] or if you have hired an outside lobbying firm that registers and lists you as a client, everyone in your organization is subject to the same congressional ethics restrictions under HLOGA," Altman says. (The rules on interacting with the administration are slightly different.)
Do educate your staff on the HLOGA's updated gift and travel rules. They impose several restrictions on sponsored travel and eliminate the previous exception that allowed members of Congress and their staffers to accept gifts, including meals, valued at less than $50 from registered lobbyists.
Don't schedule your association's PAC or related political fundraising events to coincide with congressional votes or other legislative actions. "You don't want to make contributions to members of Congress while they're in the process of voting on matters of interest to the association," Altman says. "The timing will look really bad when the press and opposition read your PAC contribution reports."
While ensuring compliance with current rules, government relations staff need to keep an eye out for changes. On the horizon is an extension of the existing gift rules that would restrict executive-branch employees from attending educational seminars and other events held by organizations that engage in lobbying activities. The proposed rule carves out exceptions allowing attendance at events held by 501(c)(3) organizations, professional societies, institutions of higher education, scientific organizations, and learned societies. Trade associations are excluded from the exception because they are primarily lobbying organizations, according to the Office of Government Ethics.
ASAE has filed comments on the proposed rule, arguing that OGE's characterization of trade associations is narrow minded and urging the agency to include those organizations in the exception.
Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Email: [email protected]