The Occupation of K Street: Lobbying, Citizens United and the need for reform

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Earlier today, protestors from OccupyDC headed over to the offices of the Podesta Group, a high profile lobbying firm, before joining hundreds (possibly thousands) of other Occupy protesters from across the U.S. in shutting down K Street. There’s another #occupy protest planned at the Supreme Court, highlighting the January 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision.

As we’ve written before, we’re excited to see a grassroots movement forming that addresses such wonky issues as campaign finance and lobbying reform. We hope that the Occupy protesters’ concerns on those issues don’t get lost in the coverage of the more colorful aspects of today’s actions. While the Occupy movement has become famous in part for its alleged lack of clear demands, we hope that the media coverage of the protests today highlights the need for real reform to bring transparency to lobbying and campaign finance.

K Street is (in)famous for being the epicenter of lobbying in Washington. In fact, the #OccupyDC group in McPherson Square also calls themselves @OccupyKSt, because ‘the money from Wall Street flows to K Street,’ disproportionately influencing the government. It’s no secret that there’s quite a bit of money around K Street — we actually mapped the top lobbying firms when we did a teach-in at OccupyDC a while back.

The reality, though, is that we don’t even know where all the money is. For example, loopholes in lobbying registration rules mean that unless you spend 20% or more of your time lobbying, you don’t have to register. So powerful figures, including former congressmen — like former Senator Dodd who now heads the movie industry’s lobby, or “historians” like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — do not have to register as lobbyists. Which means we can’t track their activity. It also means that, in effect, we rely on lobbyists to uphold an honor code of registering when appropriate. That’s not a good recipe for public oversight. Sunlight’s been advocating for serious lobbying reform for years — you can learn more (and join us!) here: http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/lobbying/

Lobbying disclosure, of course, has been a problem since long before Occupy. The public has a right to know how special interests and lobbying help shape public policy—for better or worse. But it’s getting harder for us to get that information.

Last January, the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission drastically changed the landscape of our election system by allowing corporations to make unlimited campaign ads—often without disclosing the donors who funded the ads. In the wake of that decision, the FEC has done next to nothing to create transparency, and the DISCLOSE Act, a piece of legislation intended to create disclosure in the wake of Citizens United, failed in the last Congress.

If Congress, the Supreme Court and the FEC are going to make it difficult to follow the money, then it’s imperative for watchdogs and journalists to follow the action. When it comes to knowing who’s wielding influence in Washington, that action is lobbying. After last year’s Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling, campaign finance and lobbying disclosure became even more closely linked. How? Lobbyists can—without ever saying a word—threaten that their clients will spend millions on ads if senators or representatives do not do what the lobbyist wants.

Imagine you’re a member of Congress. A lobbyist comes to you representing a powerful corporation and asks for your help on a bill provision. You’re not sure that bill provision best represents the interests of the people in your district, but the lobbyist points out that their client has a Super PAC that is willing to spend millions of dollars running ads in your district — money that you can’t match. What’s more, because of how weak campaign finance disclosure laws are, that lobbyist might have an army of other corporations or wealthy individuals who also support the bill who could secretly funnel unlimited amounts of money to that Super PAC. What would you do?

Occupy Wall Street got the country talking about economic disparities and corporate accountability. We hope that today’s actions — the Occupation of K Street — fuels the conversation about money in politics and the need for reform.

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