Connecting Links: Criticism of Obama’s Stimulus Lobbying Rules


The criticism of President Obama’s lobbying rules continues as more lobbying and industry groups — surprise, surprise, lobbyists don’t like being regulated — join in the fray.

Eliza Krigman reports at the National Journal on a letter from Douglas Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, to the White House requesting the rules be changed to include conversations from all persons regarding the stimulus. Pinkham writes, “The fact is, there is no proof whatsoever that federally registered lobbyists deserve a higher level of scrutiny than any other group.” Unfortunately, for him, this thing called the Supreme Court has a difference of opinion:

Toward that end, Congress has not sought to prohibit these pressures. It has merely provided for a modicum of information from those who for hire attempt to influence legislation or who collect or spend funds for that purpose. It wants only to know who is being hired, who is putting up the money, and how much. It acted in the same spirit and for a similar purpose in passing the Federal Corrupt Practices Act – to maintain the integrity of a basic governmental process. See Burroughs and Cannon v. United States, 290 U.S. 534, 545 .

Under these circumstances, we believe that Congress, at least within the bounds of the Act as we have construed it, is not constitutionally forbidden to require the disclosure of lobbying activities. To do so would be to deny Congress in large measure the power of self-protection. (U.S. v. Harriss)

The Hill reports that Washington’s largest house of influence, the Chamber of Commerce has entered the ring to oppose the rules. The Chamber echoes concerns by other groups that the rules restricting the form of communication used by lobbyists seeking stimulus funds are an impediment to the right to petition the government. It isn’t yet clear how the Chamber’s entrance into this controversy, with their million dollar lobbying might, will affect the lobbying rules.

The same Hill article quotes Sunlight’s John Wonderlich explaining that the rules have not brought about adequate disclosure. John is quoted as saying, “It is not enough and not often enough … Disclosure has to be in real time, online and in substantive detail … When you see restrictions on speech, everyone is proposing disclosure as the way to go.” John also noted that the lack of structure in the reporting and the lack of transparency for unregistered influencers is leading many to reconsider the Lobbying Disclosure Act as a basis for these changes.

That hole in disclosure is evident if you just take a look at the lobbying contacts disclosed by the various agencies involved with stimulus spending. The Washington Post peeks inside and finds,

a look at summaries of lobbyist contacts that federal agencies are posting online shows the rules being applied inconsistently and departments reporting just a few such communications. Lobbyists complain that many bureaucrats are overzealously enforcing the curbs. The White House says if lobbyists are being restrained, that’s just what they had in mind.

While the White House’s goal may be to restrain lobbyist influence, the public would similarly be well-served by the disclosure of contacts made by these lobbyists and attendant influencers seeking stimulus money. Better disclosure, as advocated by my colleague John Wonderlich would be a good first step. And, even though Pinkham is wrong about lobbyists’ unique role under the law, he is right about one thing: the White House should “create a searchable database that tracks all conversations of those seeking stimulus funds.”