Levin Completes ABA Task Force Report on Federal Lobbying Laws

The work of Ronald Levin, the William R. Orthwein Distinguished Professor of Law, is reflected in a recent report issued by an American Bar Association task force seeking to strengthen federal lobbying laws. An expert in public law, Levin served as the Reporter for the ABA Task Force on Federal Lobbying Laws. He produced multiple working drafts and oversaw all negotiations leading to completion of the 30-page final report, which advocates increased transparency of lobbying, curbs on conflicts of interest, and improved enforcement of the lobbying disclosure laws. Recommendations based on the report will be considered by the ABA House of Delegates in August 2011.

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The report observes that “Lobbying plays an essential and consequential role in governmental decision-making, but its influence on legislative and executive actions also gives rise to apprehensions and controversy in society at large.” The report follows in the wake of congressional legislation stimulated by the influence-peddling scandals involving Jack Abramoff and other lobbyists. President Obama has used executive orders to impose further restrictions on lobbyists’ participation in government. However, despite public attitudes toward lobbying, the task force acknowledges that lobbying is protected by the First Amendment and contributes to informed and democratically responsive decisions.

Several recommendations of the report aim at improving weak spots in the laws that require registration of lobbyists and regular reporting of their activities. “Current law does not require lobbying firms to report the activities of the firms they retain for support activities such as public relations, polling, coalition building, and planning strategy,” Levin notes. “Nor does it require lobbyists to state which specific congressional or executive offices they have contacted.” 

The report argues for fuller disclosure of these matters. According to Levin, “None of the recommendations is intended to silence lobbyists; rather, they are intended to give the public a fuller picture of who is talking to the government about what.”

Another aim of the report is to restrict lobbyists’ direct fundraising for politicians. “If the recommendations become law, no one who lobbies a member of Congress will be able to raise funds for that member for the next two years,” Levin explains. “Nor will anyone who raises funds for a member be able to lobby him or her for two years. However, individual contributions to a campaign would still be allowed.” 

The report also recommends restrictions on contingent fee contracts and political contributions made in connection with lobbying for earmarks and other narrow financial benefits. Finally, the task force believes current lobbying laws are not enforced well, because they are administered by congressional staff and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia instead of by an administrative agency. Therefore, the report recommends that enforcement responsibilities be given to a regulatory body such as the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.

Levin is a nationally known scholar who specializes in administrative law and related public law issues. He is the co-author of a casebook on state and federal administrative law and has contributed to multiple editions of The Lobbying Manual, published by the ABA. He has published numerous articles and book chapters on administrative law topics, including judicial review, rulemaking, and legislative reform of the regulatory process. Levin has chaired the ABA Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice and also served as the ABA’s advisor to the drafting committee to revise the Model State Administrative Procedure Act.