Secrecy and money have no place in lobbying – and a new bill aims to fix that


We are celebrating September with blog posts and a special event dedicated to improving the ways the public learns about how influencers get their voices heard in Washington. A few days ago, we told you about the The Real Time Transparency Act (S. 2207H.R. 4442), a bill that would dramatically improve disclosure of big contributions to campaigns by requiring all campaign contributions of $1000 or more to be disclosed within 48 hours.

Today we focus on shining a brighter light on resources that are used to directly influence policy. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., recently introduced the Lobbying and Campaign Finance Reform Act (S. 2754) to ensure that everyone who is a paid influencer is required to register and report his or her lobbying activities, and to attempt to de-link lobbying and fundraising.

The Bennet bill closes what is known as the 20 percent loophole — a provision in current law that allows some of the most powerful influencers in Washington to operate as “stealth lobbyists” because they spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying for a specific client. The fiction of the 20 percent loophole is that it implies that only registered lobbyists wield undue influence. In reality, many of the most influential people in Washington are far more influential than the vast majority of lobbyists who do register.

One such example is former Massachusetts Senator and current New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown, who, while at Nixon Peabody, focused on “business and governmental affairs” — aka lobbying — “as they relate to the financial services industry.” Brown likely took advantage of the 20 percent loophole, never registering and reporting his lobbying — er, governmental affairs activities. Brown has threatened to sue Harvard professor Larry Lessig for the sin of referring to Brown as a “lobbyist.” To avoid the risk of a law suit, we’ll just be sure to refer to Brown as a “stealth lobbyist.” Scott Brown’s he-doth-protest-too-much threat of a lawsuit notwithstanding, the portions of the Bennet bill that close the 20 percent loophole are a simple expansion of current, well-established law. Treating stealth lobbyists like every other lobbyist should be something that garners bipartisan support.

Likewise, the remaining provisions of the bill should appeal to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. The bill prohibits members of Congress from soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists when Congress is in session, helping to eliminate the appearance or actuality of quid pro quo corruption and relieving members from some of the time consuming burden of fundraising. It also bans lobbyists from the practice of bundling — collecting and forwarding multiple contributions in an effort to get credit from the candidate for raising a lot of money for his or her campaign. The solicitation and bundling limits should appeal to lobbyists, who won’t feel obligated to respond to members’ calls for cash or to hit up their friends and associates for contributions.

The Bennet bill embraces the right of lobbyists to advocate for their cause, while recognizing that they should not be able to do so in secret, nor should they have an advantage as a result of their fundraising prowess. Sunlight and ReThink Media will discuss this and other reform proposals on Sept. 16 at an event to explore “The Price We Pay for Money’s Influence in Politics.” To join us, RSVP here.