This Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision. We here at Sunlight recognize that if Congress and the Supreme Court are going to make it difficult to follow the money, then we’re going to have to follow the action. Now is the time for modern day lobbying disclosure. We need to fix the current regulations and mandate the tracking of lobbying activities in real-time, online.
We’ve seen creative new techniques in the way election money is spent — and hidden — by outside groups. We’ve seen the legislative effort to respond to the decision fail in the Senate. And we’ve seen lobbying continue on as it always has been, albeit with less hindrances.
As a result of the Citizens United decision, lobbyists now have a powerful new means of persuasion — the ability to spend corporate money against a member of Congress without any accountability. We need real-time online reporting of lobbying contacts by anyone who lobbies to counter this new radical power lobbyists have to influence public policy through the very real threat of unlimited campaign ads.
Now, a lobbyist can approach a member of Congress and — by implication or outright threat — let the member know this said lobbyist can direct millions of dollars into a barrage of ads either supporting or opposing the reelection that member. Making matters worse, because disclosure rules are so weak, it is possible for lobbyists to do this with no visible paper trail disclosing his or his client’s involvement in placing those ads. When the public learns about these new “powers,” their opinion of lobbyists is likely to plummet even further. Lobbyists already ranked last in Gallup’s 2010 annual poll on professions’ honesty and ethics — below car salespeople.
To follow and neutralize this new influence, Sunlight is stepping up its push for real lobbying disclosure — the real-time, online disclosure that works at the same pace as money in politics. Our proposal is explained here, and we urge you to go to PublicMarkup.org to comment on a draft lobbying disclosure bill we just posted. Our hope is that by airing the bill publicly and crowdsourcing its review, we can hone an even better proposal, and build support inside and outside Congress for real-time, online lobbying disclosure.
In addition to our lobbying reform bill, Sunlight is pursuing a variety of new efforts to shine a light on lobbyists’ work.
For example, our Reporting Group’s new Lobbyist Registration Tracker allows you to see, in near real time, who is newly registering as a lobbyist, watching the revolving door swing from staffer to lobbyist. As you’ve seen on our blog, we provide running coverage of registered lobbyists and the “invisible lobby” alike, so that everyone knows when and where influence is affecting policy-making, even if it evades the simplistic definitions of the current laws.
Our award-winning Sunlight Live platform will continue to showcase money in politics and lobbying activities disclosures along with live events, adding essential context to public events. Our Influence Explorer site is getting more and more vital data, creating an expanding picture of how and where money is flowing, and from whom. And our new OpenGovernment.org site (which we just launched in collaboration with the Participatory Politics Foundation) is bringing the same kinds of data to state legislatures, which are also strongly affected by the Citizens United decision. And soon, you will be able to research state-based lobby expenditure data thanks to the hard work of the National Institute on Money and Politics.
This is just a taste of what Sunlight’s focus on lobbying disclosure reform will entail. Stay tuned — or better yet, sign up for our updates — so we can invite you to help us test new apps and help us shape our work.