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House votes for a clearer lens on campaign donations

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• Disclosing contributions given to candidates' political action committees as well as their campaigns.

"What we achieved was substantially new information required to be disclosed now by lobbyists," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group that works to improve the integrity of government and elections.

For example, all individuals are limited by law to donating no more than $2,300 to any one candidate's primary campaign and no more than $2,300 for his or her general election campaign. But many lobbyists, as well as others, also collect contributions from multiple individuals – a practice called "bundling" – and deliver the entire amount for a candidate's war chest. The donors are identified publicly, but the bundlers currently are not. Critics say the practice allows the bundlers to acquire undue influence over lawmakers. The process is so well-established in Washington that individuals even include a "code" on their checks to signal to politicians who has directed the contribution.

Other avenues of influence include paying for conferences or retreats held by lawmakers, or contributing to foundations or other entities designated by members of Congress – or even named after members.

Lobbyists must disclose role

Under the terms of the House bill, those practices would change. Lobbyists could still bundle contributions, but now they would have to disclose themselves as the bundler of donations totaling more than $5,000 in a quarter, as well as give the names of their employers. Lobbyists also must certify that they have not given gifts to any member of Congress in violation of House or Senate rules.

The fact that this information would become available electronically is just as important as the rules changes.

"For years Congress has been putting out information about itself, but constituents back home don't have any access to it," says Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.

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