Rookie lobbyists have always had to work harder than Capitol Hill veterans. But new rules give old-timers an even bigger edge, especially when it comes to banking issues.
As of Jan. 1, get-to-know-you lunches became a thing of the past, at least in the House. What's more, most lobbyists have to fill out more paperwork than ever.
Now, registration is required of anyone paid to influence legislation by contacting congressional staff members and federal executives - as well by contacting elected officials.
For the banking industry, the new registration requirements and gift restrictions are critical.
"Banks and other insured depository institutions are highly regulated. The more complex the regulations, the more important staff and agency contacts are," said Barbara Timmer, a former general counsel to the House Banking Committee who is writing a book on the new rules.
Lobbyists must register separately for each client. Companies that hire their own lobbying staffs must also file a report identifying those employees.
In semiannual disclosure reports, lobbyists must list the name of the client, the issues and bills the client hopes to influence, and income and expenses for that account.
Previous registration rules were murky and many lobbyists argued that they weren't required to register. "The old law was unclear in terms of who had to register. So in a number of cases lobbyists were not registered," said Wright H. Andrews, a partner at Butera & Andrews, a Washington law firm with a large bank lobbying practice.
Improper disclosure can lead to tough penalties. If the secretary of the Senate or the clerk of the House suspects that a lobbyist is not complying with the law, the U.S. attorney must be notified. Defective filings not fixed within 60 days after the notification is sent could lead to fines as great as $50,000.
Though nobody is crazy about more paperwork, bank lobbyists are more worried about the gift restrictions. The House rules eliminate lunches and while the Senate would essentially permit them, it would draw the line at greater largess such as golf outings. That limits the kind of contact lobbyists value most - one on one - and does little to limit the big-money power politics voters most dislike. Exempt from the gift ban are political contributions and fund-raising events. Also, Political Action Committees will gain more prominence because they are allowed to pay for food, lodging and transportation to their fund-raising events.
"The shame of it is inexpensive lunches would be ruled out. But you can attend a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner," said one banking lobbyist.
The result: lobbyists with the most contacts and the biggest political action committees have a big head start. "It's much more difficult under the new gift rules to establish personal relationships," Mr. Andrews said.
Ironically, because big-money campaign financing efforts are more important than ever, the gift restrictions may not be the good-government reform they were intended.
"What is being done here is strengthening the link between campaign financing and legislative issues," he said. "If you don't have a Political Action Committee now, you damn well ought to consider one."