Disclosure needed as Obama administration reverses lobbyist ban

K Street, Washington’s lobbying HQ. (Photo credit: Ben Schumin/Wikimedia Commons).

The Obama administration announced it will reverse part of the lobbying ban it instituted in 2010 and allow registered lobbyists to serve on any of 1,000 advisory boards, commissions or panels that provide policy making advice to the government. Reporting on the subject, Politico noted “watchdog groups” were “disappointed” by the decision. The Sunlight Foundation — often labeled one of those “watchdog groups” — is, in fact, not disappointed. At least not yet. We have long thought that rather than an arbitrary ban on one category of influencers, while still offering corporate heads, union leaders and “stealth” or unregistered lobbyists a seat at the table, the public would be better served with a strengthened disclosure regime.

There can be no doubt that too many special interests have too much access to decision-makers in Washington, D.C. But it is the height of absurdity to pretend that only registered lobbyists wield undue influence. As a result of a loophole in existing law, many of the most influential people in Washington avoid registering as lobbyists by claiming that they spend less than 20% of their time lobbying for any particular client. Yet former members of Congress — Tom Daschle and Newt Gingrich come immediately to mind — are far more influential than the vast majority of lobbyists who do register and have therefore been banned from serving on advisory boards.

It is equally foolish to believe that wealthy political donors, like Sheldon Adelson and Tom Steyer, who give millions of dollars in hard and dark money are somehow less influential than a mid-level lobbyist from a small shop who may or may not get his calls returned by senior administration officials. Yet the prior ban would preclude the latter and not the former from serving on advisory boards.

But, while the administration has rightfully decided to set aside the ban, it must ensure that there are new, strong disclosure requirements in place so that the public is aware of every individual who has special access as a result of serving on an advisory board, and what interests he or she represents. Robust, timely transparency is a far better tool than a limited ban in order to determine whether advisory boards are balanced or whether they are stacked to favor one special interest or position.

Even with this reversal, the Obama administration leaves in place an unnecessary prohibition that demonstrates it continues to favor stealth lobbyists and large donors to registered lobbyists. Under the revised rule, registered lobbyists are still prohibited from serving on advisory boards in their “individual capacity,” and may only serve if they are specifically appointed to represent the interest of a particular group.

This twisted position means that a casino magnate like Adelson could, for example, serve on a board addressing Internet gambling and could also serve as a private citizen, advising the government on just about anything of interest to him. However, a registered lobbyist would be limited to serving only on a board addressing the interests she represents, regardless of her expertise in other areas. If the ban on serving in an individual capacity is necessary, it should apply as to every member serving on advisory boards, or else it should not apply at all.

It’s likely that the administration maintained the prohibition against lobbyists serving in their individual capacity as an effort to save face—demonstrating its continued antagonism towards K Street, while attempting to address issues raised in a lawsuit challenging constitutionality of the ban. But if the Obama administration really wants to address undue influence in Washington, it should stop creating hollow exceptions and instead focus on making membership on advisory boards much more transparent.