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Congressional Staff Need to be Transparent Too

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Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Kane explicates the fine print on a fundraiser flier sent out by Sen. Charles Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and finds that the draw for prospective lobbyist fundraisers will be congressional staff members -- not members of Congress:

Officially, lobbyists are asked to give or raise $2,000 to be a "host" or $1,000 to be a "DSCC friend" in order to meet "individuals representing" Senate Democrats. That's code word for chiefs of staff and staff directors of committees, according to lobbyists who received the fundraising pitch. The image of the invite that was e-mailed to Capitol Briefing included the file name of "chiefs invitation". It's part of what some lobbyists say is an emerging technique in fundraising by the campaign committees -- gathering a group of top advisers to lawmakers rather than the principals themselves. Lobbyists say they've heard that later this year House Democratic chiefs of staff will be the draw at a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

This is an important reminder of the reasoning behind item 3 on Sunlight's reform agenda:

3.) Meaningful lobbyist disclosure. All who are paid to engage in direct issue advocacy with lawmakers and their staff should be required to register, and all registered lobbyists should disclose all legislative contacts, all legislation and regulations discussed, all contributions they make and coordinate to Members and organizations affiliated with members, all prior government employment, and any relationship to a current Member of Congress, staff member, or executive branch employee. All lobbyist reports should be filed online within 24 hours of any meeting or contribution.

Rest assured that we would consider attendance at by a staff member at a campaign cash raising soiree to be a reportable contact. I think the disclosures filed by lobbyists for foreign governments, political parties and other government-related entitities give a hint of what this might look like (and, because the Department of Justice's Foreign Agent Registration Unit just put a database of them online, I can point to a specific example, a supplemental form filed in February 2007 by Watts Conulting Group, which is run by former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts. Starting on page 12 of the form, you can see what we're after: they sent letters requesting an appropriation for the Institute for Liberty and Democracy to 12 House members and 9 Senators (you can read the actual letters starting on page 16 of the PDF); they had meetings with three Senators, and they list all their political contributions.

These disclosures aren't perfect -- for one thing, we tend to think that these contacts can be reported more frequently than every six months; the technology exists for these contacts to be reported in real time, which obviously would be preferable. But it does show that a more stringent disclosure regime already exists, and could serve as a model for lobbying reform.