The Irony and the Solution of Lobbying Disclosures

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If you read Monday’s New York Times story about how many lobbyists are de-registering in the face of new filing requirements and how some may still be lobbying without technically violating the law, I can understand if you came away confused about a) the general value of transparency, b) the effectiveness of making lobbyists disclose their activities and c) my own role as a one-time lobbyist for Sunlight, since the reporter used my own personal experience as the peg for his story. I suppose the point was to suggest some kind of irony—transparency advocate hiding her activities from the public?  Well, let me give you some more background than was included in the Times piece.

Although not required by law, when Sunlight was founded in 2006, I registered as a lobbyist to demonstrate that the public good is served by lobbying disclosure. I didn’t have to do this since I was at most spending 2-3% of my time meeting Members of Congress or their staff, and the law only requires people who spend more than 20% of their time on lobbying to register. But, since I was occasionally having meetings on Capitol Hill to discuss our transparency agenda, I thought I should err on the side of more rather than less disclosure. I still believe that but I figured out pretty quickly how meaningless current lobbying disclosure law is – I was never asked who I met with, what I discussed in my meetings, or even how much time I spent with a lawmaker or her staff. The information I filled out didn’t really tell anyone anything substantial. There was little real public good served. Anyway, I had almost nothing to report—perhaps a handful of meetings at most.

Then along came the Obama Transition team with their strong disposition against holding meetings with registered lobbyists. Talk about irony. For the first time in my decades in Washington I actually found an Administration sympathetic to my long-held agenda about government transparency. The last thing I wanted to do was have being a registered lobbyist become a barrier to talking to the administration about improving transparency. So, since I was under no legal obligation to register (because I spent so little time on Capitol Hill directly), I deregistered in the last quarter of 2008. (Sunlight has two registered lobbyists on staff – John Wonderlich, our Policy Director and Nisha Thompson, our online organizer. Our third lobbyist is Lisa Rosenberg who is a consultant to us.)

This might look like a case of perverse consequences—tougher rules against lobbyists leading someone who was doing a modest amount of lobbying to unregister as a lobbyist in order to have more lobbying-type conversations with decision makers! But here’s the point: When I was registered, the filing requirements were so weak you had no idea who I talked to on the Hill or in the White House, what I talked to them about, or what my positions were. Lobbyist registration and disclosure as it is currently structured is pretty much a joke. All kinds of people in and around Washington buy and sell influence over the process; the 14,000 registered lobbyists are just the tip and shoulder of the iceberg. Big campaign contributors, corporate and union executives, celebrities, and my favorite, “strategic advisors” like Tom Daschle who use their long careers in Congress to guide lobbying firms without actually going up to the Hill to lobby themselves, are all players in the influence-peddling business. The current disclosure laws—which exempt anyone who spends less than 20% of their time lobbying—hide more than they expose.

So let me state here and now. When, as we advocate, the lobbying disclosure laws are reformed to cover all lobbying, and require prompt disclosure of who is lobbying whom for what and for how much, I’ll be the first to sign up.

Our lobbying laws should be detailed and timely enough to keep pace with the influence peddling they are designed to track. We need to amend the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA) to require that all individuals engaging in direct issue advocacy with lawmakers, staff and the executive branch, as well as those who bundle campaign contributions to federal candidates above a threshold amount must report within 72 hours of their first lobbying contact under the LDA. If you lobby, you lobby. No more of this ridiculous 20 percent exemption.

All registrants should be required to disclose all legislative contacts with a member of Congress, staff or executive branch employee. Disclosure should include all legislation and regulations discussed and all requests for specific services or government funding. Right now the reporting is so general you have no idea who lobbyists are actually meeting with, or what is being discussed.

All legislative contacts should be reported within 24 hours of any meeting.  A reporting template should be set up so that we can report from our iPhones and Blackberrys. Reporting lobby contacts should be a simple and seamless as texting.

And finally, all campaign contributions made and bundled by lobbyists should be reported within 24 hours of being made. All such disclosures should be made electronically, published promptly and maintained online in a downloadable, searchable, sortable format.

And the White House needs to get real.  Real time, on line transparency is key to holding lobbyists at bay—not bans on one group of special pleaders while another group gets to waltz in and out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Who else wants to sign up with me?

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  • Ken

    Aren’t we missing the role of our elected representatives in all this? They meet regularly with these people, they travel with them, party with them. Shouldn’t they be held accountable?

    Where are their schedules available for our review? Where are the topics of their conversations with these people? Where are the resumes of their staff so we can trace the influence of special interest money and job hopping by staff?

    Doesn’t “sunlight” apply here also and shouldn’t we demand sunlight on their schedules and easier access to their donor lists so we can scrutinize and trace the influence of who they really listen to as they craft our laws?

    It is clear that restrictions don’t work and with today’s Supreme Court decision, shouldn’t we go the other way and demand pure and open access to any elected official’s meeting schedule while they are doing our business and dare them to take the money while they do the special interests business and deny their influence?

    Shouldn’t we demand they sign a “Sunlight” petition as they stand for re-election or office?

    Let’s only elect politicians who have nothing to hide.

  • Can we increase the proposed minimum Revenue or Expenses to $10,000, because we do want citizens to petition the government, and we do want them to organize to consolidate their wishes.

    “Good ideas do not come from Washington, they come to Washington.” The problem is the ideas fall on deaf ears, unless presented pool-side in a tropical location.

    Huge paradigms yet to be broken, the work has just begun.

  • Great distinction Lisa.

    Time is money, here in DC as is elsewhere. If you’re under $2500 you’re probably not being very effective unless you’re part of a huge grassroots movement.

    Awesome question Chris!

  • Lisa Rosenberg

    In response to Chris’ great points, we agree. We wouldn’t want to limit a constituent’s right to lobby her representatives. We also do not want to set a trap for the unwary citizen who would have no reason to know he is supposed to register and report. We propose an exception to any lobbying registration and reporting requirements based on either income earned from lobbying or expenses made in connection with lobbying. If either your income or your expenses related to lobbying does not exceed a certain threshold, say, $2500, you shouldn’t have to register and report.

  • Chris

    Well thought out points, but one question I’ve always had is where do you draw the line between transparency and the First Amendment rights to petition the government? When you say “cover all lobbying,” are you including in that citizens who contacts their congressman on an issue?

    Lobbying includes phone calls, letters, e-mails, not just in-person visits. If private citizens write their congressman, do they have to register as a lobbyist? There That would make for millions of registered lobbyists in the United States.

    Yes, some citizen contacts are so called “astroturf” lobbying where an organization urges its members to make the contacts, but as a former Hill staffer I know that the majority of constituents who write or call do so because they personally care about the issue, and often don’t need outside prodding to do so.

    There has to be some sort of de minimums rule. Maybe 20% is too high. The fact remains that anyone who contacts an elected officials has made a “lobbying contact” and is technically a “lobbyist.”