In the 2012 election 28 percent of all disclosed political contributions came from just 31,385 people. In a nation of 313.85 million, these donors represent the 1% of the 1%, an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States.
During the 2012 election cycle, a tiny percentage of lobbyists gave a combined $34.1 million in campaign contributions, putting them in elite company with the political 1% of the 1%, individuals who have given at least $12,950 each toward identifiable federal election activities. And while lobbyists’ donations made up only a small portion of the overall contributions from the political 1% of the 1%, their contributions might net the most bang for the buck. Lobbyists more often gave directly to candidates rather than to outside groups; and it is to those candidates—when they are elected—that the lobbyists turn when they need help.
There are approximately 9,500 federally registered lobbyists in the US, yet only 894 influencers—registered and stealth lobbyists—gave enough to break into the political 1% of the 1%, concentrating their power to ensure access and influence on Capitol Hill. Those lobbyists, along with the rest of the political 1% of the 1%, use their contributions to help determine who has the financial wherewithal to become a candidate. Later, the small slice of lobbyists contained within the 1% of the 1% can combine their financial assistance with their revolving door access and personal relationships with Members of Congress and staff to influence the outcome of legislative battles, and even determine the issues that get addressed in the first place. Yet the direction the Supreme Court has gone in Citizens United and other cases, as well as candidates’ and parties’ increased reliance on enormous contributions from the wealthiest donors, suggests that efforts to limit the amount of contributions will not be successful. Instead, robust disclosure of contributions, expenditures and contacts by everyone who is paid to influence government will be the most immediate and effective method to dilute their power and level the playing field.
Currently, the Lobbying Disclosure Act requires reporting of: the name and address of the registering entity and the names of the lobbyists it employs; the name and address of all clients; former congressional and executive branch positions held by lobbyists; areas of projected lobbying activity; the names of organizations providing significant funding to the registrant for its lobbying activities; and the names of foreign entities affiliated with the client. Together, these mandates sketch an outline of lobbyists’ activities, but, due to gaping omissions, the current regime fails to fill in the details, leaving the public mostly in the dark about lobbyists’ activities and what the most generous lobbyists may be receiving in exchange for their largesse.
Shining the brightest light on lobbying activities will expose to the public where the levels of influence are and who is pulling them. Sunlight has developed a set of eight principles that form the foundation of a comprehensive lobbying disclosure regime.
- Anyone Paid to Lobby must Register as a Lobbyist
- The Name, Address and Unique Identifier for Each Lobbyist must be Disclosed
- All Lobbyists must Report their Significant Contacts
- Expenditures for Public Facing Lobbying Support must be Disclosed
- All Reports must be Filed in Real Time
- All Reports must be Filed Online and Made Available to the Public in a Robust Format
- Reports must be Subject to Random Audits and Strong Enforcement
- The Names of Violators must be Disclosed
A lobbying disclosure system that incorporates all of the principles outlined above would decrease the unfair advantage the 1% of the 1% have when it comes to making their case on Capitol Hill. Each principle is outlined further, below.
Anyone Paid to Lobby must Register as a Lobbyist Currently, no disclosure is required of influencers—even those in the 1 % of the 1 %—if they spend less than 20% of their time lobbying on behalf of any one client. This loophole creates a class of stealth lobbyists, powerful influencers and big contributors, who wield clout with elected officials far from any public scrutiny. The disinfecting qualities of disclosure only work if the same rules apply to everyone.
The Name, Address and Unique Identifier for Each Lobbyist must be Disclosed Obviously, disclosure starts with the name and address of each lobbyist, but it must also include public access to each lobbyist’s unique identifier. This simple requirement would eliminate existing confusion as to the precise number of lobbyists, and clarify whether names appearing in different forms are actually the same person.
All Lobbyists must Report their Significant Contacts The current Lobbying Disclosure Act includes the congressional finding that: ”responsible representative Government requires public awareness of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence the public decision-making process in both the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government.” The law fails to satisfy that purpose, however, because it requires disclosure only of whether a lobbyist contacted the House, Senate or Executive Branch. To truly understand how decisions are being made, the public must know with some specificity who is being targeted by the lobbyist. Lobbyists’ reports should include the name of the executive or legislative branch official contacted by the lobbyist, a summary of the nature of the contact, including specific actions requested, and the name of the client.
Expenditures for Public Facing Lobbying Support must be Disclosed Much of the influence of today’s lobbying results from the perception that the public supports the lobbyist’s position. To build that support, lobbyists and lobbying organizations make large expenditures to influence public opinion. Disclosure of expenditures for items such as paid media and polling that is related to bills or issues the lobbyist is lobbying on is fundamental to the public’s understanding of the influence industry.
All Reports must be Filed in Real Time Deadlines for filing various lobbying reports currently range from 45 days after a lobbying contact is made, to quarterly for activity reports, to semi-annually for contribution reports. The schedule enables a lobbyist who wants to delay disclosure to game the system, by, for example, making a contribution after a reporting deadline has past. The lag in disclosure also risks that the public will not be made aware of lobbying activities until after the legislative action has taken place. The Internet makes it simple and practical to ensure that all required reports are filed in close to real time.
All Reports must be Filed Online and Made Available to the Public in Robust Format To be meaningful, lobbyists must be required to file their reports online, and the information contained in the reports must be made immediately available to the public in a searchable, sortable, structured, machine-readable format. Data must be made available as bulk download. Anything less than full online public access is incomplete disclosure.
Reports must be Subject to Random Audits and Strong Enforcement Due to lack of enforcement, lobbyists risk little in terms of penalties for failure to file timely, accurate reports. Strong enforcement, including random audits of reports, is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of any disclosure regime.
The Names of Violators must be Disclosed A disclosure regime should have a mechanism for the public to know the names of individuals or firms who are guilty of serious or repeated violations. Public disclosure would act as a strong motivator for compliance and provide government officials with a way to check on the trustworthiness of the lobbyists who are seeking their assistance.
Well before the rise of the 1% of the 1% of lobbyists, the Supreme Court stated, in United States v. Harriss:
Present-day legislative complexities are such that individual members of Congress cannot be expected to explore the myriad pressures to which they are regularly subjected. Yet full realization of the American ideal of government by elected representatives depends to no small extent on their ability to properly evaluate such pressures. Otherwise the voice of the people may all too easily be drowned out by the voice of special interest groups seeking favored treatment while masquerading as proponents of the public weal. This is the evil which the Lobbying Act was designed to help prevent.
The court in 1954 could not have foreseen that massive contributions funneled to candidates by a tiny percentage of lobbyists would be among the pressures to which members of Congress are subjected. Yet contributions by the political 1% of the 1%—and the resulting access and influence such contributions buy—are surely among the “evil which the Lobbying Act was designed to prevent.” A disclosure regime embracing the eight principles outlined above is a necessary tool to combat that evil.