Disclose Lobbying Contacts to Reduce Distrust

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It’s time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my Administration or Congress. — President Obama in his State of the Union speech.

Today, there are over 13,000 registered lobbyists working in Washington to influence our elected officials and government employees. These 13,000-plus lobbyists spent $2.5 billion on lobbying in the first three quarters of last year (fourth quarter totals are still being tallied). All of this monied influence and we have no idea who they meet with or what they discuss. Sunlight has called for the disclosure of lobbyist contacts for quite some time now. It’s both heartening and surprising to see the President call for the same thing.

Why should lobbyists disclose their contacts to the public?

President Obama explained it very well in his State of the Union last night, “We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.” These “deep and corrosive doubts” stem, not only from fears of quid pro quo deals struck behind closed doors, but from the belief that there is associational bias in the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship. In a legal essay on lobbying disclosure, Anita Krishnkumar, a law professor at St. John’s University, writes, “…[T]he public perceives that lobbyists receive special face time with elected officials. Irrespective of where that face time occurs — in scheduled meetings, on a train ride, over a game of power, or on the golf course — it creates opportunities for lobbyists to persuade elected officials of their clients’ positions, opportunities that ordinary citizens do not have. In other words, the public’s concern is not just that elected officials will engage in blatant vote-selling to lobbyists, but, more subtly, that they will be partial to the causes of lobbyists’ clients because they spend a lot of time in lobbyists’ company.”

The fears that people have about the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists can begin to be reduced by the simple disclosure of lobbyist contacts. This disclosure would allow us all to see lobbyists requesting earmarks, writing bills and distributing information. We’d also be able to track lobbyist meetings in the run-up to congressional hearings and floor votes. This would allow for the full story of the legislative process to be put into the public record.

There is no doubt that lobbying is protected by the First Amendment right to petition the government. The massive growth in the lobbying sector, however, has raised serious concerns about policy capture by monied interest groups. It’s time that Congress enact real lobbying reform by requiring the disclosure of lobbying contacts. In a post last night, Ellen Miller explained what real lobbying reform would look like, “Sunlight believes strongly that such disclosures should be made electronically, published promptly and maintained online in a downloadable, searchable, sortable format. We believe that disclosure should include all legislation and regulations discussed and all requests for specific services or government funding. Legislative contacts should be reported within 24 hours of any meeting. In addition, the requirement that contributions by registered lobbyists be reported semiannually should be amended to require contributions be reported within 24 hours of being made.”

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