FCC Requires Electronic Reporting of “Ex Parte” Meetings: Can’t Congress do the Same?

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The Federal Communications Commission announced a new initiative that demonstrates that the agency understands and welcomes full disclosure. As of June 1, the FCC began requiring that details about ex parte communications—meetings with agency staff where only one side of an issue is present to make its case—must be filed electronically. Not only will transparency at the FCC be improved, but the initiative serves as an example of how transparency should work throughout government.

According to the FCC’s general counsel, “disclosing the contents of oral ex parte contacts on the record ensures that interested parties, the public, and the Commission staff all have complete information about the data and arguments that are presented to Commission decision-makers.”

Makes sense to Sunlight. An ex parte contact at the FCC sounds a lot like a lobbying contact on Capitol Hill. Nothing wrong with it, but details need to be disclosed so that interested parties have a chance to know who is saying what about important public policy issues. We’ve called for improving disclosure of lobbyists contacts by, among other things, including naming the Member of Congress’ office with whom the lobbyist met and providing details of the lobbyist’s request. It sounds a lot like the FCC’s requirement that ex parte notices must list of everyone who participated in the meeting and a summary of all data presented and arguments made.

These types of disclosures will improve the dialogue at the FCC and would do the same for Congress. Fundamentally, lobbyists are educators. More disclosure about meetings would ensure that decision makers have a more complete understanding of all sides of the issue at hand.

Naysayers who say that agency communications are different than lobbying Congress should look to the example of Sen. Gillibrand. She publishes all of her official meetings online the day after they occur. She knows that if a voter sees that she has met with a lobbyist whose views they oppose, they can contact her office to make sure their viewpoints are heard too.

The same principle is at work with the FCC’s ex parte rules. The FCC gets it. Hopefully Congress will too.

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