My colleague Zephyr Teachout asks what we as citizens (and more narrowly, those of us at the Sunlight Foundation) should be doing to push for real reform in how Congress goes about its business. There’s no shortage of proposals out there, including proposals to establish an independent office of public intregrity for Congress, banning gifts, travel and meals paid for by lobbyists or special interests, and reforming lobbying disclosure.
On the latter topic, one suggestion I’d make is to consider using as a model the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a piece of legislation that dates back to 1938 and was enacted to “insure that the American public and its law makers know the source of information (propaganda) intended to sway public opinion, policy, and laws.”
Under FARA, those engaging in political activities on behalf of their foreign clients have to reveal how much the clients pay them, the text of any agreements they have to provide services, any campaign contributions the agent has made and a host of other information; the act has criminal sanctions for those who don’t comply, unlike the current Lobbying Disclosure Act, which has only civil penalties (which are rarely applied).
Under FARA, a lobbyist representing foreign interests has to report her contacts with executive and legislative officials. To give just one example of what that looks like, consider this from a 1996 newspaper series and book America: Who Stole the Dream by journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Using FARA disclosures, the two pieced together the rounds made by a lobbyist working on behalf of Mexican interests to pass NAFTA, including lunch at swank Washington eateries with U.S. Trade Representative officials and sending flowers and gifts to and arranging junkets to Mexico for congressional staffers.
This isn’t to say that FARA is perfect: while the amount of disclosure required is far greater than the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the information is far less accessible–the records are scanned documents so you can’t search by keywords, they’re filed only twice a year, and you have to travel all the way to Washington, D.C., to get them–they’re not available online. But the level of detail on lobbying and political activities required of foreign agents is well worth applying to regular Washington lobbyists.