Yesterday, John Wonderlich wrote an important post here about Sunlight's meeting with the White House (with a bunch of other organizations) regarding the stimulus lobbying rules. The most important thing that John wrote is this:
To me, this looks like an imperfect law (the Lobbying Disclosure Act) being used as a foundation for imperfect lobbying restrictions, in the face of enormous and unprecedented stimulus spending. Whether the restrictions are proportional to the sudden need for competent spending is certainly up for debate. There seems to be little debate, however over whether the LDA is a sufficient vehicle for lobbying regulation. It isn’t. The LDA requirements are easily skirted, enforcement is lax, and many terms are insufficiently defined. (It’s probably fair to say that position was the consensus of the groups present, but certainly not presented as administration policy.)
The justification being given by the administration for these rules is that they do not want the stimulus funding process to be mucked up by lobbyists seeking bits and pieces of the $700+ billion bill for unworthy projects. However, as John notes, we are seeing unregistered influencers go to lobby for stimulus funds. We are also seeing this happen in other large pots of money. Take for example the $700+ billion bailout handled by the Treasury Department:
Stress-test results showing major banks need to raise new capital were finalized after intense negotiation between the government and the banks, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told Charlie Rose in an interview taped on Wednesday.
Despite the Treasury Department's rules prohibiting lobbyist influence in the awarding and distribution of bailout funds, bank executives and lawyers can still meet with an influence Treasury's decision as it relates to their bailout status. This similarly highlights what John says above: the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) is a poor measure by which to grade and regulate influence.
The LDA does not cover many paid influencers that go to executive branch agencies or Capitol Hill, does not require the disclosure of contacts, and has loose and diffuse enforcement mechanisms. As the debate over influence increases in Washington, there will likely be a need to revisit this Act and consider many of the proposals that were left on the cutting room floor when the bill was adopted in 1995. Proposals that were dropped included disclosure of contacts, widened registration net, and better, more professional enforcement and oversight. It's about time to consider these ideas, as they appear to be the real meat for real reform.