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Why We Need Faster Lobbying Disclosure II

by

Speaking of the Dubai ports deal in the context of the inadequacy of our current lobbyist disclosure laws, it's probably worth noting that it wasn't just DP World that was hiring lobbyists. The controversy, recall, erupted in the second half of February, as an increasingly large, bipartisan group of lawmakers questioned the sale of a British firm that handled some U.S. port operations to a company owned by the government of Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. By March 9, DP World announced it would get out of the U.S. ports business.

What's unique about the Dubai ports controversy is that, because the story was so sexy (as news folks like to say), it got a lot of coverage, and a lot of aspects of the story were explored. That a Florida-based company, called Eller & Co., brought the Dubai deal to the attention of Congress was reported in the very first AP story, for example. And how that came to be, and who it was who talked to which members of Congress, was revealed in a fine article by Douglas Turner of the Buffalo News dated March 4, 2006, and available through the magic of Nexis. This story, as far as I can tell from Nexis, was the first mention of Joseph Muldoon...

Attorney Joseph Muldoon III represents Eller & Co., a Miami-based shipping firm that is fighting the transaction here and in Britain's highest court. In an interview, the attorney said Eller & Co. does not want to become an unwilling partner of DP World's Miami operations. Muldoon told The News he unsuccessfully appealed two months ago to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., whom he knows personally, and also saw staff members for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to stop the sale on national security grounds. "I'll check it out," Muldoon quoted Warner as responding. "Finally, I went to Sen. [Charles E.] Schumer because he is a member of the Senate Banking Committee, which oversees the Treasury Department board which approved this thing. If this hadn't been for Sen. Schumer," Muldoon said in an interview, "this issue would never had gotten any traction. /SNIP/ It was not until Muldoon called Schumer's office three weeks ago that it bloomed into an issue that threatens the president's hold on Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

There's also an excellent account of this from Peter Overby of National Public Radio from four days later, March 8, 2006, which adds information about Muldoon--not the least bit of which is that he was the lobbyist for Eller & Co. (which, if I'm not mistaken, is the first time Muldoon is referred to as a lobbyist in the coverage).

Yet if you'd looked up Eller & Co. on the Senate Office of Public Records Web site--either on March 4 or March 8, you would have found...nothing. That's because Muldoon didn't file his lobbying registration disclosure unitl March 6, and it wasn't posted on the Senate's site until March 28--some 19 days after the Dubai ports controversy had been resolved. That's no fault of Muldoon's--he certainly followed the law and the rules for filing. It's the law and the rules that are wholly inadequate to accomplishing the goals of disclosure.

As noted, the press coverage on this story was thorough--even touching on the contacts that one of the Washington lobbyists involved had during the course of the controversy. But most things that happen in Washington don't get anywhere near this much coverage, if any at all. Members aren't always so eager to go before the cameras (as they were in the Dubai ports affair) when it's a tax break they're doling out. Lobbyists don't necessarily want to tell a reporter how they landed a fat earmark for a defense contractor client. Public disclosure of lobbying reports is supposed to fill in this gap--even if NPR or the Buffalo News or the Associated Press doesn't share your interest in an issue, you as a citizen should know who's trying to influence your elected representatives. Or, as the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 puts it,

[R]esponsible representative Government requires public awareness of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence the public decisionmaking process in both the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government...

It seems to me that it's awfully hard to have public awareness of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence public decisionmaking if the decisions are taken before the lobbyists filings are available for public inspection...