Disinformation on Lobbying

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The Hill just posted an important story with responses to President Obama’s line, last night, calling for better lobbying disclosure from Congress.

Chairman Issa charges of President Obama:

“I think he feigns perfection without having yet achieved it,” Issa told The Hill. “I do think when the president still has his people traipsing across the street to the coffee shop so they didn’t technically meet at the White House, quite frankly he has more to do.”

I had a similar reaction this morning, looking in detail at what the administration has done, especially at the visitor logs and at the TARP, stimulus, and Dodd-Frank lobbying policies. I’d stop short of calling it feigned perfection, though. Obama’s lobbying disclosure rhetoric could be interpreted as taking credit for more than they’ve acheived, or it could be interpreted as saying that they’re leading on lobbying disclosure, and that Congress should follow suit.

It doesn’t matter what he meant, though. We need better lobbying disclosure laws, and the President and Congress will both have to work to achieve it. The administration is no more “already done” than Congress is.

Issa continues, though, and casts lobbying disclosure as a congressional matter:

“It’s very clear that this is another body, and as much as [Obama] might want to control this body, I believe that Speaker Boehner is on the road to taking us to a next higher level of accountability,” Issa said.

Unfortunately, lobbying disclosure needs statutory reform, not just rules changes, and new laws require the President’s approval. Lobbying disclosure requires the Congress and the President, both. (There are rules changes that would help with lobbying issues, but they’re marginal compared to the need for a new Lobbying Disclosure regime.)

The article then lists a variety of objections thrown up by leadership throughout Congress. These objections are easy to rebut.

We take on a huge amount of people with veterans’ problems, people who have tax problems, people who have immigration problems,” Issa said. “Would you have us put all of that on a website, with the names? Probably not.”… A GOP aide dismissed the idea, however: “No one will take that proposal seriously until the White House starts following their own rules.” The proposal also received an unenthusiastic response from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)… “Sen. Reid is all for transparency, so we will take a look at it, but, it’s not as easy as it sounds,” spokesman Jon Summers said. “The Capitol is inherently more open to the people than the White House. On Thursdays alone, Sen. Reid holds a free breakfast that is open to any Nevadan constituent who comes to Washington. Some days we will have as many as 150 people at that one breakfast alone.”

Let’s deal with those objections, in order.

First, no one is suggesting putting the names online of all constituents who meet with Members of Congress. There are any number of reasonable thresholds of who must report their lobbying, and the current definition is broken. This objection is a diversion.

Second, Obama’s current self-imposed policies are far better than nothing. The President is building lobbying disclosure policies on top of Congress’s broken half-hearted effort. If Obama’s policies ultimately fail, Congress should fix them. This is a poor excuse for inaction.

Third, we don’t need a comparison of the openness of the White House and Congress. Influence is wielded wherever it’s effective. Senator Reid may have fantastic breakfasts for constituents, but the need for better disclosure of lobbying is unaffected by their coffee and crullers.

The President and congressional leaders should take a hard look at our lobbying laws, and decide, together, that they need to be fundamentally improved.

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