After posting about President Obama’s announced new lobbying disclosure rules for the recovery funds, Ellen Miller, Sunlight Executive Director and fellow blogger, tweeted that these rules “should be applied across the board for all lobbying – Congress & Executive.” I couldn’t agree more with this notion. While we don’t know how Obama’s team will implement the new rules, the spirit and ideas behind them should be applied to all lobbying of the federal government.
Lobbyist disclosure laws do not require lobbyists to list who they meet, only which branch or department. We can discover that a lobbyist lobbied the House of Representatives on H.R. 37483, but that information is only somewhat meaningful. To achieve real transparency, lobbying disclosures need to list who a lobbyist met with, what issue/bill they met on, and what position the lobbyist was taking towards the issue/bill (this could even include listing what alterations, insertions, or deletions the lobbyist sought). Obama’s proposed new rules for the recovery go a long way towards this goal.
The application of these rules comes at a moment when the public is noticing that intense lobbying by financial services companies and mortgage brokers over the past ten years led to a series of poor policy decisions, including the passage of numerous laws and the blocking of others, that allowed these very companies to act in a reckless manner, sending the world economy into a tailspin. There are so many examples of this. To name a few: Freddie Mac secretly hiring a lobbying firm to block a bill to reform Fannie and Freddie and the lobbying campaigns in support of Gramm-Leach-Bliley and the Commodities Future Modernization Act. During this ten year period, the financial sector spent $3.3 billion on lobbying. The public was never privy to who those lobbyists were meeting with or what they were lobbying on. Now is the time to change that.
The new recovery lobbying rules provide an excellent jumping off point to address the serious transparency failures in lobbying disclosure. They will also provide a great example for future changes to the actual lobbying disclosure law, the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Previously, limited lobbying disclosure rules were passed for specific industries (much as these rules only apply to recovery funds), which helped lay the groundwork for later, more comprehensive reform. In the 1930s, the Marine Merchant Act and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act contained the first enacted lobbying disclosure laws. Both laws only applied to lobbyists and agents for marine merchants and public utility holding companies. These disclosure rules were added to the laws after serious abuses were found in the industries’ attempts to influence Congress. These two disclosure laws set the stage for the later adoption of the first comprehensive, although totally inadequate, lobbying disclosure law, the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act.
Hopefully, these new rules will spur action to enact real lobbying disclosure for all lobbying contacts in all branches of government. There are many other ways than the ones discussed above to make lobbying disclosure better including real-time disclosure and expanding the defintion of lobbyists. What else am I missing? Put your thoughts in the comments.