Too Little, Too Late

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The following appears in the National Journal’s new “lobbying experts” blog launched last week. I will be posting there regularly.

I’m what you might call a connoisseur of lobbying disclosure records. Over the years I’ve perused them when doing investigative research about any number of subjects, from lobbying around reform of the Food and Drug Administration to obscure real estate tax provisions. Instead of getting the who, the what, the why, the where, and the when of what actually happened, I typically end up extremely frustrated. The information available is always too little and comes too late.

First, in the “too little” department: it’s an open secret that the current exemption allowing people to avoid registering as a lobbyist if they spend less than 20 percent of their time involved in lobbying activities for a specific client means that there is a cadre of “stealth lobbyists” out there who are not reporting.

The most infamous example is Tom Daschle, who recently took a job as a senior policy adviser in the government affairs division of DLA Piper. Just as in his previous job at the firm Alston & Bird, Daschle is not expected to register as a lobbyist. Instead, he will simply be giving “advice” to clients. As my colleague Lisa Rosenberg (herself a lobbyist, for the Sunlight Foundation) pointed out recently, Daschle’s “frequent trips to the White House belie his claims that he is not attempting to influence policy on behalf of his clients. His clients, and their lobbyists, benefit from his access to key decision makers as well as his strategic advice on how best to influence lawmakers.” Until this loophole is closed, writes Rosenberg, “Daschle and untold numbers of former elected officials, corporate CEOs, and presidents of labor unions can act as stealth lobbyists–often with greater access and influence than the majority of registered lobbyists, and almost always without leaving a trace of what they are saying, who they are saying it to, and on who is paying them to say it.”

Then there’s the fact that even those who file as lobbyists are required to provide so little information. Consider this form filed by Clark & Associates for the firm’s work on behalf of the American Bankers Association. Here I see that the firm lobbied on the economic bailout bill–but all I can find out is that lobbyists contacted the “U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.” There are, of course, 435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate, and from this form I don’t have a clue which ones in particular received visits, phone calls, or other communications from these lobbyists. Lobbying disclosure rules must be strengthened to include more detailed information about whom lobbyists contacted.

Now on to the matter of “too late.” Right now lobbyists file their disclosure forms only once a quarter, often months after the lobbying actually happened which means journalists, bloggers, and researchers are suffering from a big disadvantage when trying to track influence on any given issue. Given today’s technology, there’s really no reason for this. As I wrote last week, the Sunlight Foundation’s vision of lobbying disclosure nirvana would be a central website, where lobbyists can file reports on their activities and the public can easily find what they report, at a maximum of 72 hours after a lobbying contact has occurred.

The public needs information about who is lobbying our government about what. But with the state of lobbying disclosure today, we’re not getting anything close to information on-line in real-time, the way it ought to be.

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