How accurate are lobbying figures?

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As part of our Statelight project, we’re reaching out to open government and open data activists around the country to contribute to (and expand!) the #opengov dialogue. Today, we welcome Diana Lopez to give some insight into the complications of lobbying reform. Lopez is the Senior Editor of Government Lobbying at Sunshine Review. She focuses on government lobbying disclosure and moderates #FOIAchat, a weekly Freedom of Information Act Twitter chat held every Friday at 2PM EST.

Sunshine Review

When looking at lobbying figures, it is important to keep in mind that you’re looking at reported lobbying data.

Not all lobbying is reported, however. Under federal law, lobbyists must register only if they:

  • make more than one contact,
  • spend more than 20 percent of their time lobbying
  • have more than $11,500 in expenses, or
  • have $3,000 in income from lobbying per quarter.

A closer look at the requirements makes it clear how easy these requirements are to shirk, and how much they leave out. Consider the fact that they don’t include a lot of what “lobbying” is: influencing legislation. Lobbying disclosure laws do not take into account “grassroots lobbying,” which includes urging citizens to contact their legislators to support or oppose legislation. Furthermore, who is to say that I spent 20% of my time lobbying, and not 19%?

There are other problems besides relaxed thresholds for reporting. Lobbying disclosure law is currently explicated in the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA). The Act — even according to lobbyists themselves — leaves much to be desired when it comes to transparency. The law does not require key details on the sort of lobbying performed and does not require specifics on sources of reported expenditures, for example.

Besides lacking requirements regarding key details, the law doesn’t have teeth — it’s unenforceable. The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House handle LDA forms and don’t have the authority or resources to enforce the law. For the more than 8,000 disclosure violations Senate officials have referred to federal law enforcement authorities, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia has taken no action beyond sending letters to potential violators.

There are downsides to the wrong approach to disclosure rules, however. After new rules supported by the Obama Administration were enacted, many lobbyists made a surprising move: they deregistered.

By either deregistering (or not registering in the first place), individuals don’t have to disclose any of the information currently required, including clients they advise, issues they’re working on, or how much their firms make from their advice.

Regulations that lobbyists feel are “overly-burdensome” encourage them to find ways around the law (although most maintain that the consequences of breaking the LDA are enough to keep them from even thinking about it). But weak laws leave us with the same consequence of no oversight and poor reporting.

The Sunlight Foundation has proposed to eliminating the 20 percent rule altogether, and lowering the reporting floor to $5,000 in expenses or $2,500 in income per quarter. This is a great first step towards more accurate figures and a more transparent government: the recommended requirements wouldn’t be burdensome because they would merely lower the threshold for reporting lobbying activity to include more lobbying activity under the law. Lower thresholds for reporting lobbying activity won’t bring complete and total light to the shady, convoluted world of lobbying. But they would bring accountability to many more lobbyists, and it would give citizens a (slightly) more accurate picture of federal lobbying.

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