An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer examines the difficulty of searching for lobbyist contributions in the Washington state disclosure databases. Frustrated at the lack of an organized system of disclosure for lobbyists, the paper has determined that “despite strong disclosure laws it’s virtually impossible for taxpayers to track the money”.
Often in discussions explaining what we do here at Sunlight I get a response that is some variation of, “Well, don’t we already have disclosure laws. Isn’t that enough?” Well, no. If you were to take a look at the data provided by the Federal Election Commission or the lobbying disclosures provided by Congress there is no context to the information. That’s what makes an organization like the Center for Responsive Politics so great; they code each filing for an industry, a lawmaker, a lobbyist, and then show aggregate amounts, providing context to a user.
Until recently, the only way you could determine federal lobbyist campaign contributions was to use Open Secrets because “Lobbyist” was a coded industry. Nowadays, you can search LD-203 lobbyist filings that list campaign contributions thanks to the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. In the state of Washington this lack of organization in disclosed data seems particularly glaring, especially for lobbyists.
According the Seattle P-I, lobbyists contribute 1 out of every 6 dollars spent on campaigns in the state. The difficulty in searching for this level of influence creates an undue boundary for citizens in a state that has passed a public right to information:
To determine which lobbyists have given to a particular politician, a regular citizen would have to already know which donors are lobbyists and read the campaign’s reports line by line or review the monthly reports filed by every lobbyist in Olympia.
The situation is the same when lobbyists sponsor junkets or take politicians to lunch. The information is disclosed, but locked in electronic images of paper documents, where it can be found only by those who know where to look.
Of course, some of the problems with the system echo monumentally stupid systems here in Washington, DC:
Reports can be filed electronically, but PDC employees still need to manually enter any data that they wish to collect because the aging software used for the filing lacks the ability to gather meaningful electronic data.
That is almost as wasteful and aimless as the campaign contribution filing system in the United States Senate.
There is still a lot to do to make information transparent and in context for citizens, especially at the state level. Washington State is just one such example.