Should lobbyists be forced to reveal prior convictions, in order to advocate on behalf of clients with business before the government?
Jack Abramoff was the most notorious lobbyist of the 2000s, exerting influence on the George W. Bush White House. He became a national name after being sentenced to three years in jail for tax evasion and conspiracy, for crimes including scamming millions of dollars from a Native American tribe.
In 2016, Abramoff re-registered as a lobbyist working on behalf of a Romanian politician and the government of Congo. Although it was common knowledge that Abramoff had previously been convicted, the fact that he was not required to report this fact upon his lobbyist registration publicized the law’s omission.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA)
What the bill does
The JACK Act [S. 2896] requires any lobbyist to disclose any previous conviction for any of the following crimes: “bribery, extortion, embezzlement, an illegal kickback, tax evasion, fraud, a conflict of interest, making a false statement, perjury, or money laundering.”
The full name is the Justice Against Corruption on K Street Act. K Street is a Washington, D.C. street where many of the lobbying organizations are headquartered. It’s also an oblique reference to the first name of Jack Abramoff.
The bill was introduced in May by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bill would provide transparency about those people who are doing so much to influence and affect Congress and federal laws.
“This idea is simple: If you have been convicted of a felony like bribery, extortion, embezzlement or tax evasion, you should have to disclose that when registering to become a lobbyist,” Sen. Kennedy said in a press release. “Corrupt lobbyists need to be brought into the sunlight, even if they’re wearing $6,000 suits.”
“Political leaders and businesses need to know the backgrounds of those who are trying to influence public policy,” Kennedy continued. “These corrupt lobbyists are the worst kind of swamp creatures and they need a one-way ticket out of Washington.”
What opponents say
Some skeptics doubt that the bill would pass constitutional muster. Lobbying is essentially the professionalization of activism, which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, so any requirements on that profession should be considered with scrutiny.
“Why are you confident this will be constitutional? The reason I say this is any American citizen can be a lobbyist, [though] there are certain rules about when you have to register as one,” Chuck Todd asked Sen. Kennedy on MSNBC. “At one point do you think that the Supreme Court might say you’re actually getting in the way of a citizen’s right to lobby their government?”
Odds of passage
In addition to its Republican lead sponsor, the bill has two cosponsors, both Democrats. The bill was approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in June. It next goes to the full Senate.