What Have they Got to Hide? Lawmakers Should Allow Meetings with Lobbyists to be Disclosed

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The sign for K Street, NW in DC - the home of lobbying in America.Recently, my colleague Lee Drutman concluded that banks met with regulators at the Federal Reserve, Treasury and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission more than five times as often as reform-minded consumer groups in the past two years.  His analysis provides a valuable tool for the media, academics and the public to better understand who is trying to shape financial industry regulations.

His conclusions, and the follow up questions that can now be asked (Did the banks get what they wanted? Are consumers’ interests being served?) are only possible because the agencies posted information about the meetings online.

Which begs the question: If the regulators can provide information about who is trying to influence the regulations they write, why doesn’t the public have access to similar information about meetings Members of Congress or their staff have with lobbyists?

For many years, Sunlight has been working on ways to reform the Lobbying Disclosure Act to require “contact” reporting—that is, to require lobbyists to disclose the names of the lawmakers who are the targets of their lobbying efforts.  Current law requires that lobbyists disclose nothing more specific than that the lobbyist lobbied the House, the Senate or the Executive Branch.

Contact reporting would shine a light on which Members of Congress are at the center of a particular issue and would go far to connect the dots between those being lobbied and the campaign contributions they receive from the interests who are lobbying them. In addition, contact reporting would provide meta-data about the overall numbers of meetings and allow comparisons about which side of an issue is expending more firepower on Capitol Hill. Such information could even help even lobbyists themselves, signaling to one group or industry that they might have to step up their game in order to be heard on the Hill.

But unlike some federal agencies, Congress has been extremely resistant to mandating that detailed contact information be made public. Members seem concerned that making their meetings public will somehow harm them in their next election—they fear the 30-second spot that will be aired against them based on who they met with.  But Members of Congress who have voluntarily made their schedules public, including Senators Baucus, Begich, Gillibrand and Tester and Congressman Quigley, have not suffered as a result. Indeed, on the campaign trail, their transparency is often touted as an asset, not a liability.

Should the LDA be amended to include contact reporting, a lot can be learned from the experience with reported Dodd-Frank meeting information. To be of the most value, data must be standardized, searchable and machine-readable. It must also be timely. Learning that members of Congress only heard from one side of an issue after the vote does nothing to improve discourse or strengthen the deliberative process. Finally, the information must be detailed enough to be meaningful. Knowing someone has lobbied on “tax policy” or “health care” is not enough to understand the goal of the lobbying effort.

The analysis of the Dodd-Frank meetings is evidence enough that data about who is lobbying whom in Washington is valuable.  Greater lobbying transparency would go a long way towards improving discourse and educating the public. If Congress continues to ignore the issue, keeping their meetings with influencers secret, the question that must be asked is, “What have you got to hide?”

(Photo by Ben Schumin via Wikimedia Commons.)

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