Good Counsel: 5 Lobbying Compliance Tips for 2019

Date: February 2019
Originally published in ASAE's Associations Now magazine.

Run down this checklist of lobbying compliance tips before you begin this year’s advocacy activities.

With many newly elected members of Congress, governors, and state legislators taking office, 2019 is sure to be a busy year for lobbying in Washington, DC, and in state capitals across the country. Nonprofit organizations that engage with public officials about laws and policies must understand the relevant lobbying rules in order to take advantage of advocacy opportunities and avoid embarrassing missteps. Here are five key compliance tips.

1. Understand the registration rules. An organization does not have to register under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) unless at least one employee spends 20 percent or more of his or her time on lobbying activities in any three consecutive months. Therefore, a substantial amount of lobbying can be undertaken without registering.

In many states, however, one communication with a legislator or executive branch official about a law or regulation can trigger lobbying registration. In addition, in some states, the lobbyist, his or her employer, and the client must register, and separate registrations may be required for legislative and executive branch lobbying. Finally, in contrast to federal law, many states require annual or biannual lobbying registration renewal.

2. Check related obligations. Virtually everywhere, disclosure reports must be filed by the lobbyist, the lobbyist’s employer, and/or the client. In addition, a wide range of other obligations may apply to lobbyists. For example, in some states, lobbyists must obtain credentials or identity badges to communicate with elected officials, and they may be required to complete ethics or sexual harassment training courses.

3. Know which activities are covered by the rules. Lobbying laws may apply to efforts other than communicating with officials about laws or rules. Many states regulate grassroots lobbying, which includes urging the public to contact officials about laws or rules, and several have “goodwill lobbying” laws that regulate efforts to “get to know” public officials, even if legislation, policies, or rules are not discussed.

4. Confirm spending restrictions. In many states, lobbyists (and sometimes their employers) have limits on the amount of their permissible political contributions, are prohibited from making political contributions during the legislative session, or are barred from political giving altogether. Lobbyists and their employers may also be subject to special restrictions on entertaining and providing gifts to public officials.

5. Ask first. Federal, state, and local lobbying laws differ dramatically and can be confusing. Take the time to understand the relevant rules before engaging in any activities that may be covered by lobbying laws.