We Don’t Need No Education
Today marks the end of the 60-day review process for the stimulus lobbying rules imposed by President Obama. On March 20, the President issued memorandum ordering agency employees in charge of stimulus funding to only accept written communications from registered lobbyists when in consultation about funding of projects and to disclose online those written communications along with any oral communications that related to the stimulus generally. In response, a coalition of organizations, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), opposed the new rules and have threatened a lawsuit.
According to Roll Call, it does not look like the administration will change the rules and the opposition coalition is up in arms. One of the arguments that I’ve heard repeatedly in opposition to the stimulus rules is that lobbyists, in their work, simply provide education to government officials and lawmakers. The specter of corruption scandal — Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham — is often used as an example of aberration, rather than common thread. However, education is often in the eye of the beholder. What one company may deem education, the public may see as a deliberate effort to deceive or bias officials.
In one recent case, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for nine years, relied on “education” from chemical industry lobbyists supporting Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that was included in baby bottles, while failing to receive similar “education” from scientists opposed to the inclusion of BPA in baby bottles. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, FDA’s “deputy director sought information from the BPA industry’s chief lobbyist to discredit a Japanese study that found it caused miscarriages in workers who were exposed to it.” This was before government scientists were given a chance to review the Japanese study.
According to the Journal-Sentinal, BPA “has been linked to neurological defects, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer and heart disease.” Despite these scientific views on BPA, FDA officials, working with industry lobbyists, blocked any attempt to regulate the chemical or ban it from use. E-mails showed that FDA officials relied on the lobbyists to do much of their work on the issue.
Now, a position that we’ve heard before is that these were not the actions of lobbyists per se. Rather, government officials, the individuals making the decisions, are to blame. They hold the authority to choose which way the policy will go and so they ought to be the ones we focus our attention to, not the lobbyists. What do lobbyists have to do with anything, anyway?
And this is a partially valid argument: government officials need to be prevented from making biased decisions. Attempts to regulate lobbyists should have as their cause the reduction of biased and ill-informed actions by officials. Government officials do make decisions, often in consultation with — or in the case of the aforementioned FDA officials, in cahoots with — lobbyists and industry officials. The revelation of these consultations provides a needed check on the potential for agency bias.
Clearly, a system of real time disclosure of the chemical industry lobbying contacts with the FDA would have prevented this instance of bias by exposing them to the public or pressuring officials to actually meet with those with differing opinions. Disclosure and transparency should be designed to prevent bad outcomes at the hands of all parties, government officials and lobbyists alike.
And this gets to the heart of the Obama stimulus lobbying rules. The lobbying rules require agency officials to report written and oral communications with lobbyists. The lobbying rules forbid agency officials from engaging in oral communications with lobbyists about stimulus funding decisions. The rules target agency officials to protect their independence.
While lobbyists may state that their sole cause is to educate the government for their clients, they can do so in ways that are either honest or deceitful, changing outcomes by providing information that may be wrong, but still positive for their client. This is their job and is not necessarily corrupt, but it is often corrosive to a functioning government and to public trust. Making lobbyist communcations transparent, as the stimulus lobbying rules do, could prevent deceptive lobbying overtures and protect agency officials from making biased actions.