Sunlight has routinely focused on the glaring problem in lobbying disclosure that only those who spend 20 percent or more of their time on lobbying are required to register. This limit helps many skirt registration and pushes them into the shadows of the invisible lobby. The greatest problem with this manufactured threshold is that it provides added secrecy for the lobbying of the most wealthy, the most powerful, and the most connected.
These corporate executives and former lawmakers working as “lawyers” or “strategic advisers” get to dodge and deal without the public any the wiser. They are often brought in to raise the stakes of a negotiation or to get a point across more directly than a lobbyist can.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a series of hearings on the for-profit college industry and regulatory responses to the industry last year. You can bet that when John Sperling, the head of the Apollo Group, which runs the University of Phoenix, and a major Democratic donor, is sent to Washington the committee will be meeting with him to hear his side of the story. And who knows how much phone time he can get from staff or other lawmakers.
The same could be said of numerous other corporates executives. J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon appears in the White House visitor logs on numerous occasions meeting with top advisers including former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and former National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers. Former Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler was instrumental in pushing the health care reform deal for the pharmaceutical industry including meeting with Emanuel and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus. Another executive who appears to be in regular contact with Washington is the oil and gas magnate T. Boone Pickens.
Of course there is the problem of White House chief of staff William Daley’s work as one of these shadow lobbyists. At both SBC Communications (now AT&T) and J.P. Morgan Chase Daley regularly did work that was lobbying or that oversaw lobbying.
The invisible lobby is not solely made up of these corporate executives, but also those former members of Congress who leave Capitol Hill to go to K Street to work as lawyers and strategic advisers with firm denials of working as a lobbyist. The name exemplifying this category has been that of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Daschle, however, is not the only one. Spencer Abraham, former senator and Secretary of Energy, runs a global energy consulting firm that intermittently registers to lobby for a client. Abraham, with his wealth of government connections, has never registered to lobby. Other congressmen who fall into this category include former Reps. Curt Weldon (Defense Solutions and Novo Energies), Jim Ramstad (alliantgroup), and Jim Greenwood (Biotechnology Industry Organization).
While these former lawmakers went off to work in the invisible lobby other leading government officials could find similar work, with an even fatter paycheck, on Wall Street. Peter Orszag, Robert Rubin, John Kasich (now governor of Ohio), Carlos Gutierrez, Neel Kashkari, Howard Baker, William Gray III, Phil Gramm, and Erskine Bowles have all trod the familiar path along the I-95 corridor from Washington to Wall Street. Only William Gray III, a former congressman, is registered as a lobbyist, but not for J.P. Morgan Chase where he is a board member. (Gray also sits on the boards of Pfizer and Dell.) Former Sen. Gramm was registered as a lobbyist for UBS as recently as 2007, but is no longer registered.
The common rebuttal to the outrage of the invisible lobby is that these people, particularly corporates executives, openly work for or run a company and a lawmaker or official meeting with them knows what their interests are, unlike a lobbyist who is hired as an agent for another claimant. A lawmaker knows why Jamie Dimon or John Sperling is meeting with them, but they need to know the names of the clients of lobbyist Porky Pig so that they understand the nature of the meeting.
This rebuttal gives away the entire problem with the current system of lobbying disclosure: it is designed to inform lawmakers, not the public.
Government officials want to know who hired lobbyists are lobbying for. The public wants to know who is trying to influence government.
While current lobbying disclosure does partially inform the public of who is influencing government it does not reveal the most powerful influencers who hide in the invisible lobby. Ending the 20 percent threshold is one of many ways to create a lobbying disclosure system that works for the people and not for lobbyists.