Last week, several groups wrote to President Obama, requesting that new restrictions on stimulus lobbying be revised. The new policies require agency employees to report any meetings with lobbyists, and forbid in-person or oral communications with lobbyists regarding specific stimulus projects.
In the letter, signed by the American League of Lobbyists, CREW, and the ACLU, the groups lauded the President’s focus on transparency, but raised alarm about the lobbying restrictions in Obama’s memo, citing first amendment concerns.
Clearly, lobbying reform must strike a careful balance between speech and the appearance of corruption. Lobbying is speech, and any attempt to regulate speech needs to be taken with great care.
In passing the Lobbying Disclosure Act, Congress justified its actions through this passage:
The Congress finds that— (1) responsible representative Government requires public awareness of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence the public decisionmaking process in both the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government; (2) existing lobbying disclosure statutes have been ineffective because of unclear statutory language, weak administrative and enforcement provisions, and an absence of clear guidance as to who is required to register and what they are required to disclose; and (3) the effective public disclosure of the identity and extent of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence Federal officials in the conduct of Government actions will increase public confidence in the integrity of Government.
…and through a number of carefully crafted exemptions and distinctions.
We think the President is headed in the right direction: more real time, online disclosure of lobbying activity. Sunlight has long advocated for more comprehensive lobbying reform. Our proposal has two core elements:
1. Expand the definition of who lobbies, and what counts as lobbying (2 USC 1602 (8)) to include anyone who needs or chooses to lobby as any part of her employment, and lobbying by what we often refer to as “non-lobbyist lobbyists.”
2. Require lobbying disclosure in real time, online. Lobbying dislclosure is only as effective as it is timely and detailed. The substance of lobbying contacts should be disclosed in real time, and in substantive detail.
So, we are excited to see lobbying reform initiated proactively by this administration, especially since such reforms are traditionally only implemented as a result of a crisis of corruption. President Obama is attempting to draw a clear line, which the groups have rightly praised in their letter.
Lobbying reforms are crafted to balance unrestricted speech against the public interest. The public interest community will likely be taking a long hard look at what is possible, and what is desirable, when it comes to reigning in lobbying.