For the second consecutive year, President Obama’s State of the Union remarks included support for posting congressional lobbying information online. While this theme was familiar and commendable, the speech failed to address a key point he made in Iast year’s State of the Union address about creating reforms in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. After Citizens United, campaign finance and lobbying disclosure have become even more closely linked. By omitting any reference to addressing this issue in his speech, we are left wondering: Is the administration back-peddling on what was once a priority?
The lack of election spending disclosure rules for corporate spending owing to the Supreme Court’s decision has allowed special interests to influence public policy through the very real threat of unlimited—and often anonymous—spending on campaign ads. In effect, lobbyists can—without ever saying a word—threaten that their clients will spend millions on ads if senators or representatives do not do what the lobbyist wants. Just in this past election year, outside groups spent nearly $455 million; $126 million of it coming from secret donors. Imagine the power of this when combined with the tens of millions of dollars these same corporations spend on lobbying. The solution is meaningful lobbying disclosure reform, so journalists and citizens alike can “follow the action,” even if they can no longer follow all of the money.
Online reporting of lobbying information is critically important in today’s Washington. We need better lobbying disclosure laws—including closing loopholes that allow many to lobby but not register because they spend less than 20 percent of their time on it. (One of the most famous examples of this kind of “senior advisor” is former Senator Tom Daschle.) We need real-time, online disclosure for lobbyists’ activity, so we know what’s happening while it’s happening among other reforms. (See http://www.scribd.com/doc/44763730/Goals-for-LDA-Amendments for more details.)
Currently, newly registered lobbyists have to file within 45 days of taking on a new client or issue, and regular lobbying disclosure forms are only filed quarterly. Three months doesn’t equal the best disclosure policy. Moreover, lobbyists are only required to disclose a minimal amount of detail about with whom they meet and what topic was discussed—there’s no requirement to disclose the staff or members with whom they are meeting. Instead of disclosing they met with someone from the Senate, we should know more specific information, like which senator or staff met with the lobbyist and what issues they discussed. All of these activities and contacts should be posted to the web every day—and without any lag time.
Recently, the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation drafted the “Real-Time Online Lobbying Transparency Act” to create a new system of disclosure of all lobbying activities, and posted it online for crowdsourced public review at http://publicmarkup.org/bill/real-time-online-lobbying-transparency-act/. This draft legislation would shine a light on potential corruption and undue pressure. Additionally, the changes this bill proposes would enrich a policy dialogue by providing the public a clear understanding of the issues that have the attention of lawmakers and the interests that are lobbying in support or opposition to them.
The president and Congress should be encouraged to move beyond rhetorical transparency promises about lobbying and work together to ensure a law is passed this year to modernize the Lobbying Disclosure Act so the information publicly reported is more comprehensive, detailed and timely.
The combination of money and influence distorts our public policy; transparency helps curb this power. As Justice Brandeis famously remarked, ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.
The Sunlight Foundation is a non-partisan non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit SunlightFoundation.com to learn more about Sunlight’s projects, including InfluenceExplorer.com and Party Time.