The 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, requires all lobbyists to file reports with the Clerk of the House of Representatives and Secretary of the Senate and that those two offices “maximize public access” to the documents through “computerized systems.” But the searchable database of every filing by registered federal lobbyists, made available through the Senate’s Office of Public Records, has a major problem: its search engine doesn’t work correctly.
One issue is reliability — searches by a wide array of Center reporters have frequently yielded false negatives or been stymied by system outages. In fact, a registrant search for “American Council of Life Insurers” yielded zero results yesterday morning, but 30 results yesterday afternoon.
While the database allows searching by the name of a registered lobbyist, certain non-text symbols have been excluded from the names and cause false negatives to show up. For example, a search for pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc. by using the full name that appears on the form and in the search engine results (or even by “Johnson & Johnson”) comes up empty. A search for “JOHNSON AND JOHNSON” returns not just the 33 correct forms filed since 1999 but also 1,934 other forms for every registrant with “Johnson” in the name. A search for the far less intuitive “Johnson Services Inc.” provides the correct list.
A spokeswoman for the Secretary of the Senate told the Center “The database does not have a problem with functionality. At the recommendation of the sergeant-at-arms, who handles IT security, we used full-text indexing in our query system, which does not recognize non-text characters. We recommend using a registrant’s ID number for the best query and ID numbers are accessible on our website.”
These identification numbers appear on a separate page, not currently linked from the search page.
And while the IT security concerns may be valid, it is worth noting that the Clerk of the House makes the same information available on its website and that search engine does not seem to be plagued by the same problems. Any user searching the Senate site, however, runs the risk of missing relevant information due to these flaws.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chief author of the lobby disclosure law, argued in 1995 that it was needed because “the public has a right to know, and the public should know, who is being paid to lobby, how much they are being paid, on what issue.” The searchability problems with this database make obtaining that information awfully difficult.
ABOUT THE DATA:
What: “Before and after” documents showing changes to proposed agency rules
Where: White House Office of Management and Budget
Availability: In dispute
Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.