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Why We Need Faster Lobbying Disclosure

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It's been interesting to hear discussions (and be part of a few) about Sunlight's transparency agenda, particularly from smart lawyer types, policy wonks and activists. For my part, I tend to need concrete examples to prop up my thinking, and thought I'd offer a few examples from how we do things now which I think will make it fairly clear as to why we need to do things differently.

Take our current state of lobbying disclosure, and a recent, relatively high profile matter that caused a lot of consternation among Americans: The Dubai ports deal. Under our current lobbying law, the average citizen would have no way of finding out how many lobbyists the company at the heart of the controversy was employing, or how much they were paying them, or who they were lobbying, until long after the matter was resolved.

For those like me with short memories, the controversy concerned a company based in the United Arab Emirates, DP World International, which would have taken over some operations at six U.S. ports thanks to its acquisition of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, the British firm that had had the contracts to work at the aforementioned ports. The Bush administration approved the sale and the shift to DP World of operations at the ports, after which critics--both Democrats and Republicans--raised some serious concerns about the deal. The fear was that the U.A.E.-owned firm would be more susceptible to infiltration by terrorists, who would have access to U.S. port facilities and foreign (perhaps uninspected) cargo.

As this handy timeline shows, these concerns were first aired by Congress on February 15, 2006 (the first story questioning the deal, from the Associated Press, hit the wires on Feb. 11); by March 9, 2006, a compromise had been struck: DP World agreed to transfer port operations to a U.S. firm (that sale was made this month).

During the high-profile controversy, DP World hired a number of lobbyists to press its case on Capitol Hill and to the administration; here are the firms, plus the dates that their first disclosures were put online by the Senate Office of Public Records:

Alston & Bird..........................................March 6, 2006 Andreae & Assoc.....................................Sept. 11, 2006 APCO Worldwide......................................March 6, 2006 Bell Pottinger............................................March 23, 2006 Downey McGrath Group Inc........................July 24, 2006 DP World FZE...........................................April 5, 2006 P&O Ports North America..........................April 5, 2006

According to their registration statements, Alston & Bird, Andreae & Associates, DP World FZE and P&O Ports North America, their effective date of registration--when they were either retained to lobby or had their first contact with a government official--was February 15--the day the storm broke. . Under our current rules, they have 45 days to register with the Senate and the House after that effective date--in this case, the House and Senate offices that track lobbyists need not have known who was lobbying over the Dubai ports deal until April 1, 2006--more than three weeks after a compromise had been reached. And, I'm informed by Senate Office of Public Records, that they allow themselves 90 days from the time they receive a report until they get it online, sometimes longer (which might explain the lag for Downey McGrath--whose effective date was Feb. 13 and whose report was received by the Senate on Feb. 24--and Andreae & Associates).

In the case of the Dubai ports deal, it appears that everyone followed the disclosure rules--and yet, if you were relying on the public disclosures mandated by Congress to find out who was lobbying over this issue, you would have had no inkling until March 6, and wouldn't have known the full roster until Sept. 11--a full 208 days after the controversy broke, and 186 days after it had been resolved.

And, of course, none of the registration disclosures linked above require a lobbying firm to specify what parts of the government--whether it's Congress, the White House or the Department of Homeland Security--that's being lobbied.

Not exactly timely disclosure.