Rushing to complete its promised reform bill, the Senate adopted a measure that, for the first time, would require registered lobbyists to disclose not only the limited money they can donate to candidates personally but also the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars they raise from clients and friends and deliver as sheaves of checks — a tradition known as bundling.
If signed into law, the measure could expose a potent tool that lobbyists use to gain access on Capitol Hill and even at the White House. Although currently invisible in campaign finance disclosures, bundling is a pillar of the modern campaign. The ability to deliver an envelope of checks — each one in compliance with the federal limit — is one of the most valuable favors a lobbyist can provide a lawmaker. Bundling is also a major reason incumbents so easily outraise their challengers and so rarely lose their seats.
There are a host of uncertainties about the measure, including whether the House will agree to it. In addition, it is not clear whether lawmakers will shy from using lobbyists to collect money for their campaigns just because the extent of their reliance on lobbyists — and the special interests they represent — will be made more visible.
Still, the measure is causing ripples as interested parties learn details of what the Senate did.
“It is the most significant provision in the bill,” said Marc Elias, a campaign finance lawyer who represents numerous senators. “They have essentially created a new campaign finance regulatory structure.”
Since campaign finance laws cap individual contributions at $2,100 per election, or $4,200 for both a primary and a general election, lobbyists who can gather and bundle checks from scores of friends and clients stand out on a campaign team, sometimes earning hero status in a tight race.
“By the nature of what we do, you have to have people helping you to gather contributions,” said Senator Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who voted along with 95 others in favor of the ethics bill. “Otherwise you are raising $10 million or $20 million, $100 at a time.”
And lobbyists, who earn their own income selling influence with the White House or Congress, have the most incentive to spend time holding fund-raisers or making calls to gather checks. “It is the capacity for fund-raising that gives lobbyists their power,” said Meredith McGeehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. “It is the currency of power in Washington.”
As the money spent on presidential campaigns has swollen, candidates have formalized their networks of bundlers like a network marketing business. President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, for example, rewarded its fund-raisers with names like Pioneers, each of whom bundled at least $100,000, or Rangers, who bundled at least $200,000 apiece. Of the campaign’s more than 500 bundlers, Public Citizen, the ethics advocacy group, identified more than 60 prominent lobbyists.
Members of Congress, however, usually prefer not to call attention to their connections on K Street, where many lobbyists have offices. Some lawmakers have especially close ties to just a few lobbyists who play a big role in their fund-raising, and calling attention to those relationships could focus new scrutiny on their votes.
Given the reliance of many lawmakers on lobbyists as fund-raisers, the idea of requiring them to disclose their roles usually meets stiff resistance on Capitol Hill — all of it behind the scenes and almost none of it in public. House passage is far from assured, and its adoption by the Senate by a roll-call vote of 96 to 2 followed some backroom resistance among senators in both parties to allowing the idea to come up for a vote at all.
The Republicans who controlled the Senate last year refused to let it come up. And on Jan. 12, before the details of the proposal had been disclosed, Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat in charge of his party’s fund-raising as head of the senatorial campaign committee, used a run-in on the Senate floor to deliver an angry rebuke to the disclosure idea’s lead sponsor, Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, several people present or briefed on the confrontation said.
In a subsequent conversation, Mr. Schumer said he worried that the proposal could cramp fund-raising by placing an undue burden on potential bundlers, said aides who were briefed and a lawmaker familiar with their talk, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the talks.
“Senator Obama has not been the most popular person in our caucus in the last couple of weeks,” said a Democratic aide involved in deliberations over the bill. Mr. Obama also this week started a bid for his party’s presidential nomination.
Eric Schultz, a spokesman for Mr. Schumer, said the senator quickly supported the bill when he understood it would apply only to lobbyists. Registered lobbyists, of course, are not the only ones who seek to influence legislation, and the Senate measure would not affect other interested parties.
“As often happens when bills are on the floor, rumors swirl about what amendments contain or don’t contain and that’s what happened here,” Mr. Schultz said. “But as soon as Senator Schumer saw the language and what was included, he supported it and in fact urged the Senate Democratic leadership to accept it.”
A spokesman for Mr. Obama said the senator was pleased that the Democratic leaders made the legislation a priority but he would not comment on private discussions within the party.
In the House, Republicans quietly deleted a similar proposal, after it had passed in committee, before it could come to a floor vote. But on Friday, the proposal’s previous sponsor, Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, now chairman of the House Democrats’ re-election committee, and Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts, sent a letter to colleagues announcing plans to reintroduce it.
“Hopefully, requiring disclosure will begin to break the nexus between lawmaking and the efforts by lobbyists to enhance their influence by channeling money from special interests,” Mr. Van Hollen said in an interview.
He said he saw no conflict with his new role as the House Democrats’ chief fund-raiser. “It may make some kinds of fund-raising more difficult, but it will play at least as much on the Republican side as the Democratic side,” he said. “From a political perspective, it is probably a wash.”
The rules for bundling would require the approval of the House and the signature of the president. Many other elements of the Senate ethics overhaul do not require House approval because they change only Senate rules. But none of the Senate rules will take effect until a House and Senate conference harmonizes their respective rule changes.
Some lawmakers, however, acknowledged that anything addressing bundling was likely to face skepticism in both chambers.
“I am sick and tired of fund-raising,” said Senator Bob Casey, a newly elected Pennsylvania Democrat who voted for the ethics bill. “When you sit in a room for four hours making calls, it kind of has a deadening effect on you.”
He added, wryly, “Anything that reduces the amount of time that you are
spending fund-raising is good for the country, and it is definitely good for