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Popping the White House Visitor Logs Bubble

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In today's Politico, Chris Frates reports on how some lobbyists now apparently feel like they're being shuttled there instead of the White House complex itself in order to avoid their meetings showing up on the visitor logs.

They're probably right.

Without laws requiring real-time, online disclosure of lobbying activity, we're going to be left with piecemeal policies, and transparency rhetoric that reaches beyond reality.

And meetings with lobbyists will sometimes be scheduled to avoid disclosure.

Now, not all meetings are scheduled at these rooms in order to be hidden, of course. I've probably been to 10 meetings in the conference center in question (and I'm a lobbyist), and these of meetings are often meetings where the administration is trying to maximize disclosure.

But, of course, the White House plans some meetings in order to gain (or avoid) the public eye. Everything the White House does is done with public exposure as a primary consideration. As the article notes, the decision to have a phone call or have an email exchange is often done with an eye to FOIA laws -- emails create a record trail, and phone calls do not. As long as we don't ban phone calls, administration officials will continue to gravitate toward them for more sensitive, or frank communications. Given that context, I'd be shocked if administration officials weren't planning meetings' locations based on whether the meetings will be disclosed.

The problem, though, is that the White House has sold the visitor logs' release as an accountability mechanism.

Whenever the administration talks about taking on special interests, and taking on lobbying, they're giving one side of the story. Their comments should be annotated with the reality of Washington influence.

The visitor logs do provide an unprecedented view into the work and influence of the White House (as Paul Blumenthal's research shows), but it's also a system that's easily (and quite often) evaded. It wasn't designed as an accountability mechanism, but for managing White House security. And releasing the records wasn't designed to affirmatively take on lobbyists, but as a response to a CREW lawsuit.

Somehow, in time since the logs were first released, this has become a hallmark transparency achievement of the administration. It's certainly a transformative development, but Obama has started to hang his hat on it. He shouldn't. The visitor logs are a security system retooled as a disclosure system, and aren't a replacement for real lobbying laws.

As we get a clearer picture of what the visitor logs do, and what they don't do, we should focus harder on what we need to ask for: real-time, online disclosure of lobbying. And we should take the visitor logs for what they are, not what we're told they might be.