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Measure on Restricting Lobbying Watered Down, but Troublesome

House Republicans have abandoned legislation aimed at stifling lobbying by not- for-profit organizations that receive federal grants.

In its place, lawmakers have proposed new record-keeping requirements for these groups, which include the Council of Jewish Federations, B’nai B’rith and most federations and their agencies across the country.

Known as the Istook amendment after its chief sponsor, Rep. Ernest Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), the measure is part of a wider effort to curb lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Jewish officials, who had fought tooth and nail against an earlier version that would have limited all forms of advocacy and put a spending cap on such activity, criticized the latest measure for imposing burdensome and costly record-keeping requirements.

But they were also visibly relieved at the changes.

An earlier version would, in essence, have forced the Jewish community to choose between its advocacy in government and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to local agencies.

The fate of the measure is uncertain because it still has to go before the Senate and be signed by the president.

It is not clear where the Senate or president stand on it.

Activists, concerned about the burden that would be imposed by the measure, caution that the fight is not over.

The new version is “not as pervasive or intrusive” as the previous version, but it “adds an additional burden,” said Diana Aviv, director of the CJF’s Washington office.

Proponents say the measure is intended to help end lobbying by federal grant recipients by requiring those organizations to tally the cost and number of hours spent on lobbying federal, state and local government officials.

The House attached the measure by a two-vote margin to a stopgap spending bill last week.

Under current law, all grant recipients are banned from spending federal dollars on lobbying and must keep detailed financial records for the Internal Revenue Service.

The Istook amendment passed last week requires grant recipients to keep a new set of records, though it is not yet clear exactly what would be involved in those record. Details of the program would only emerge if the measure becomes law and the government writes rules to spell out what is required.

“To add another layer of record keeping seems to be contrary to Mr. Istook’s party’s view of cutting down on red tape,” Aviv said.

The measure is widely interpreted as “punitive,” said Reva Price, assistant director for B’nai B’rith’s Center for Public Policy. “This is definitely a way to get at nonprofits.”

Price cited as an example of the potential burden a phone call this week from a Housing and Urban Development official seeking general information from one of B’nai B’rith housing specialists

Under the measure, the official would likely have to report this contact as lobbying and begin to keep a log of all phone calls from federal officials. To transfer this information to a federal form to report “takes time and money,” Price said.

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