Representatives Quigley and Polis took a significant step toward improving what we know about Washington power players by introducing the Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act today. The bill would require lobbyists to disclose the names of the covered executive branch officials or Members of Congress lobbied (or the name of the employer if the lobbyist meets with staff), the dates of the meetings and the issues discussed. If enacted, speculation about what lobbyists are doing would be replaced with facts contained in databases of lobbying information. The public would have access to answers to questions about lobbying including: Who was the target of the lobbying? What did the lobbyists discuss? When did the lobbying contact take place?
The legislation also closes a gaping hole in who needs to report. Currently, some of the most powerful players inside the beltway are subject to zero disclosure. Former members of Congress such as Tom Daschle and Norm Colman, CEOs of major corporations like Jeffrey Kindler of Pfizer, and labor leaders such as SEIU’s Andy Stern have significantly more political and financial pull in Congress than many of the mom and pop lobby shops that must report. Yet, because the law says reporting is only necessary if a lobbyist spends more than 20 percent of her time lobbying for any particular client, the public is completely in the dark about many of these "stealth lobbyists" who wield tremendous influence.
The Quigley bill rightly eliminates that loophole. Bravely too, as many of the Congressman’s colleagues might decide to further their careers by becoming “policy advisors” in Washington law firms or lobby shops. Nearly 200 former members have chosen this lucrative path and many rely on the 20 percent loophole to avoid disclosure.
The bill also significantly speeds disclosure of new registrations and reduces delays in reporting of lobbyists’ contributions. Instead the current 45-day lag time for filing a registration when a lobbyist takes on a new client, the bill requires registration within 5 days. This nearly real time, online reporting will hasten public access of information that can be a vital clue as to what issues are trending in Congress and what companies or industries might be facing congressional scrutiny. Under the bill, reporting of contributions lobbyists make to candidates will occur quarterly instead of semi-annually. This aligns contribution reports with required quarterly reporting of lobbyists’ activities, improving the ability to track when lobbyists’ contributions amplify their requests for help from Members of Congress. (Sunlight would go even farther than the Quigley bill and require real time reporting of contributions and lobbying activity to eliminate the risk of the barn door being closed after the cows have escaped.)
Finally, the bill tries to impose some order on the wild west of lobbying disclosure by creating new enforcement mechanisms, including random audits and, eventually, an online whistleblower provision to ensure that lobbyists are accurately registering and reporting.
This is an important piece of legislation. Following the actions of lobbyists by making their work more transparent is one way to track influence and ensure accountability inside the beltway. Improved disclosures will also improve the dialogue in Congress by ensuring that voters can react and respond to the arguments their representatives are hearing from lobbyists. If a voter sees that her Congressman has met with a lobbyist whose views she opposes, she can contact the Congressman's office to make sure her viewpoints are heard, too.
Follow the progress of this bill as well as Sunlight’s work on it by checking in here or following the hashtag #openlobby on Twitter.