Lobbyists are in midst of a bonanza in Washington. With the Obama administration pursuing so many goals at once, the influence industry is booming. One area that has lobbyists salivating like cats surrounding a mouse is the $787 billion stimulus package (only about $400 billion of this was actually spending-related) signed into law earlier this year by President Obama. That was the reason that the administration crafted rules for stimulus lobbyists designed to limit their ability to influence spending decisions and make transparent their actions. The rules, smartly summarized by my colleague Daniel Schuman here, included a requirement for agency officials to disclose all contacts made by lobbyists in regards to the stimulus. The Associated Press looked at these disclosures and found little disclosure occurring with wide discrepancies in the format of disclosure among those few reports filed:
President Obama ordered federal officials to disclose their contacts with lobbyists trying to influence how the government doles out money to jump-start the economy. Yet few such communications have been reported even though lobbyists say they are busier than ever with the multibillion-dollar stimulus. Since the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February, federal agencies have reported 197 contacts with lobbyists about stimulus grants. In August, the entire government reported only eight such lobbying contacts. The Pentagon, which controls about $7.4 billion in stimulus spending, reported just one lobbying contact so far this year. The Homeland Security Department, with at least $3 billion to spend, reported none.
Forgive me for not believing that the Pentagon has only been contacted by ONE lobbyist and the Homeland Security Department has had ZERO contact with lobbyists over stimulus spending. Other agencies are no better. Of particular concern is the lack of a standardized format for disclosure. According to the AP, "The Education Department described 19 encounters, including Secretary Arne Duncan's meetings with the NAACP and other groups, some with detailed descriptions of the discussions. Energy Department reports include barely legible scrawls as well as 159 pages of public comments on a transmission infrastructure program."
If the administration is going to undertake a serious effort to reduce influence around and bring transparency to stimulus spending they are going to need to reconsider how they are requiring these disclosures. In the recent OMB memo on stimulus lobbying rules, the administration stated its intent on creating a web tool to “facilitate disclosure of lobbyist contacts concerning the Recovery Act.” The development of this tool should also coincide with the creation of standardized disclosure. Beyond that, they need to empower some official at each agency to enforce the disclosure rule.
For right now, this is both not-too-surprising and very disappointing. Maybe we just need a law requiring lobbyists to disclose their contacts. Perhaps the administration, which campaigned on transparency and curtailing the power of lobbyists, could consider putting their weight behind a legislative effort to increase transparency in the influence industry.