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House Oversight Shows More Visitor Logs Evasion, Deals

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The House Energy and Commerce Committee has released another in a continuing string of reports on the White House negotiations with the healthcare industry. The latest reports have more damning evidence about how top White House officials approached visitor logs transparency:

“Jim – coffee at Caribou Coffee – across the corner from the WH – would work at 11:30 a.m. on Friday…plus getting you through the new WH security rules these days almost takes an act of Congress almost (and you know how well that’s going these days),” Smith wrote. “[P]lus you’d appear on an official WH Visitor List which is maybe not want [sic] you want at this stage …”

The only reason this is shocking is that the White House has consistently oversold the release of the visitor logs as though it's a replacement for effective lobbying disclosure laws. As we've often pointed out, the WAVES systems were designed for security, not tracking influence. Unfortunately, the White House has chosen to use the visitor logs disclosure as a shield whenever their transparency or ethics are questioned, despite numerous shortfalls in their effectiveness.

In 2011 we saw Press Secretary Jay Carney refuse to answer questions as to whether or not the White House had any guidance on scheduling off-site meetings to avoid disclosure, and the newly released emails take it a step further, suggesting that the Deputy Chief of Staff was helping to coordinate the logistics of non-disclosure, helping industry officials keep their contacts with the White House secret.

The White House was in the midst of brokering a deal with the industry they intended to regulate, trading specific policy concessions in exchange for ad-buys and political support. When that's the strategy, this behavior shouldn't be surprising -- secrecy is necessary for collusion.

The silver lining here, I suppose, is that we're slowly being afforded a clearer picture of what happened. Even if it's being selectively disclosed to the Energy and Commerce Committee, and then parceled out in the months running up to the election, this may be our best chance to have a serious discussion about influence and Presidential secrecy. Because the Presidential election has so far avoided the topic altogether, with politics that differ entirely from 2008's anti-Washington reform themes.

If the Energy and Commerce Committee keeps hammering away at this topic, and if the disclosures get salacious enough to demand public attention, then maybe we have a chance to put some real remedies back on the table. As I told the E+C Committee when I testified on this topic in 2011, the visitor logs are an unreliable window, and a self-imposed, imperfect, voluntary policy. We need reliable, statutory, real-time, online lobbying disclosure if we're serious about protecting public policy from money in politics. If those protections were in place, these secret meetings either would have been disclosed, wouldn't have happened, or would have been illegal.

Ultimately this is a story about lobbying disclosure that we don't yet have, an industry whose clout far outstretches our accountability mechanisms, and a politics whose rhetoric is a petty reflection compared to the sober assessments of integrity and corruption that we need.