When Political Money is Too Hard to Track, Follow the Lobbyists

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Gabriela Schneider 202-742-1520

When Political Money is Too Hard to Track, Follow the Lobbyists

WASHINGTON - For the second consecutive year, President Obama’s State of the Union
remarks included support for posting congressional lobbying information
online. While this theme was familiar and commendable, the speech
failed to address a key point he made in Iast year’s State of the Union
address about creating reforms in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. After Citizens United,
campaign finance and lobbying disclosure have become even more closely
linked. By omitting any reference to addressing this issue in his
speech, we are left wondering: Is the administration back-peddling on
what was once a priority?

The lack of election spending disclosure rules for corporate
spending owing to the Supreme Court’s decision has allowed special
interests to influence public policy through the very real threat of
unlimited—and often anonymous—spending on campaign ads. In effect,
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. Just in this past election year, outside groups
spent nearly $455 million; $126 million of it coming from secret donors.
Imagine the power of this when combined with the tens of millions of
dollars these same corporations spend on lobbying. The solution is
meaningful lobbying disclosure reform, so journalists and citizens alike
can “follow the action,” even if they can no longer follow all of the
money.

Online reporting of lobbying information is critically important in
today’s Washington. We need better lobbying disclosure laws—including
closing loopholes that allow many to lobby but not register because they
spend less than 20 percent of their time on it. (One of the most famous
examples of this kind of “senior advisor” is former Senator Tom
Daschle.) We need real-time, online disclosure for lobbyists’ activity,
so we know what’s happening while it’s happening among other reforms.
(See http://www.scribd.com/doc/44763730/Goals-for-LDA-Amendments for more details.)

Currently, newly registered lobbyists have to file within 45 days of
taking on a new client or issue, and regular lobbying disclosure forms
are only filed quarterly. Three months doesn’t equal the best disclosure
policy. Moreover, lobbyists are only required to disclose a minimal
amount of detail about with whom they meet and what topic was
discussed—there’s no requirement to disclose the staff or members with
whom they are meeting. Instead of disclosing they met with someone from
the Senate, we should know more specific information, like which senator
or staff met with the lobbyist and what issues they discussed. All of
these activities and contacts should be posted to the web every day—and
without any lag time.

Recently, the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation drafted the “Real-Time
Online Lobbying Transparency Act” to create a new system of disclosure
of all lobbying activities, and posted it online for crowdsourced public
review at http://publicmarkup.org/bill/real-time-online-lobbying-transparency-act/.
This draft legislation would shine a light on potential corruption and
undue pressure. Additionally, the changes this bill proposes would
enrich a policy dialogue by providing the public a clear understanding
of the issues that have the attention of lawmakers and the interests
that are lobbying in support or opposition to them.

The president and Congress should be encouraged to move beyond
rhetorical transparency promises about lobbying and work together to
ensure a law is passed this year to modernize the Lobbying Disclosure
Act so the information publicly reported is more comprehensive, detailed
and timely.

The combination of money and influence distorts our public policy;
transparency helps curb this power. As Justice Brandeis famously
remarked, ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.

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The Sunlight Foundation was co-founded in 2006 by Washington, DC businessman and lawyer Michael Klein and longtime Washington public interest advocate Ellen Miller with the non-partisan mission of using the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens.

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