The New York Times reported yesterday about a bold and far-reaching investigation underway by the Office of Congressional Ethics that looks into what most consider business as usual in Washington—lawmakers asking for and receiving contributions from the industries they are regulating at the time they are voting on laws that impact those industries. In this case, the OCE’s focus is on congressional fundraisers hosted by Wall Street lobbyists and executives immediately prior to crucial votes on the financial reform bill.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, to make it easier for future investigators as well as average citizens to establish whether there any links between campaign funding and legislative action, contributions by lobbyists should be electronically reported online, in real time.
Current law requires contributions by lobbyists be reported semi-annually. But a six-month lag time for reporting not only is unnecessary in the digital age, it delays until well after it is meaningful information about money and access and influence in Washington. As Nancy Watzman posted yesterday—and our Party Time database demonstrates—fundraisers often coincide with votes on issues important to the hosts. But current reporting requirements mean that voters often have to wait months for confirmation that campaign contributions and votes coincide.
The specter of Members of Congress ducking out of the debate on the financial reform bill in order to gather checks from the financial industry illustrates perfectly the need for real time reporting of lobbyist contributions. Instead of reading about it after the fact, voters could have simultaneously watched their Representative vote for an amendment favored by the financial industry and learned that the he received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from the banking lobby.
In less time than it takes to write a check, lobbyist donors could electronically report that they made or bundled contributions to a candidate. They could also report when they host a fundraiser; just as quickly as they hit “send” to email invitations to potential contributors, they could hit “submit” on an electronic form filed with the FEC with the details of the event. Real-time online disclosure might result in an outrage that could change the way business is done in Washington in a way that disclosure months after the deed is already done could never accomplish.