Congress could learn something from the FCC


Telecom and Internet application companies are sending lobbyists and corporate executives to Washington to try and sway the newly appointed commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on hotly debated new net neutrality rules. The FCC requires the disclosure of all contacts with commissioners as they regard the implementation of rules or policies. The full story of lobbying by the telecom and Internet companies would not be known without this type of disclosure requirement. This is something that Congress could learn from the FCC.

According to The Hill:

Meredith Attwell Baker, the newest Republican commissioner, or her aides have held at least seven meetings with officials representing both sides of the debate since the FCC voted three weeks ago to move forward with a rulemaking effort on network neutrality, according to a review of close to 100 records at the FCC.

Meanwhile, Mignon Clyburn, the newest Democratic commissioner, or her aides have at had at least three meetings on the issue.

Meetings with those two commissioners on net neutrality make up more than half of 18 held at the FCC on the issue since the rulemaking was announced on Oct. 22.

Lobbying disclosure rules as embodied by the Lobbyist Disclosure Act of 1995 and subsequent amending by the Honest Leadership and Open Government of 2007 do not require lobbyists to disclose their contacts with covered government officials. Currently, only the FCC is required to disclose contacts, not just by lobbyists, on rules and policies. The Obama administration has also set contact disclosure rules for companies seeking stimulus funds and banks seeking bailout money.

I’ve previously advocated for amending the Lobbyist Disclosure Act to require the disclosure of lobbyist contacts. The current system of lobbyist disclosure does little to inform the wider public about the actual activities of paid lobbyists. The Lobbyist Disclosure Act was implemented with arguments from lawmakers that they needed to know who was lobbying them. In effect, it was a Congress centered transparency effort, not a transparency policy aimed at informing the public about the activities of government.

It could be argued that the disclosure of lobbyist contacts could lead to further disenchantment with government in the eyes of the public. Decontextualized information can often lead the acceptance of insinuations. Some may interpret any lobbyist contact as a corrupt activity, but this simply isn’t the case. What we need is a fuller picture of who has influence in a given lawmaker’s office. This doesn’t imply corruption, just who has influence. The later actions of a lawmaker will provide the context that reporters and others can research to find the actual context of a contact.

Take the above story on the FCC commissioners lobbied on net neutrality. Without those disclosures the public’s understanding of how the rules come to be crafted and how each commissioner votes would be lessened. Less information makes insinuation even more likely, more information helps to tell the story of what actually happened.

Similarly important, every trade group, every lobby shop, every company will know what the others are doing to influence policy in Congress and in the executive branch. This will likely lead to a more competitive atmosphere. Lawmakers may wind up feeling pressure to hear from both sides on an issue. If a lawmaker is seen to be meeting with one side on an issue, the opposition may demand that she meet with them. Hearing from a diversity of opinion could broaden the scope of understanding in Congress.