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The Deregistration Dilemma: Are Lobbyists Quitting the Business as Federal Disclosure Rules Tighten?


They may be attempting to avoid new limitations on federal lobbying. Perhaps they're seeking to skirt the notoriety of being a federally registered lobbyist.

No matter the reason, some lobbyists are reconfiguring their jobs so that they are not required to remain on the congressional rosters of federally registered lobbyists -- or simply quitting the influence game altogether.

But how many have sought this path -- a few? Many? Legions? And what does it mean to deregister? Can this be measured?

These are the questions that the Center for Responsive Politics seeks to answer today in a new report about federal lobbyist "deregistration" trends.

Download the full report here: Deregistrationreport.pdf 

The study, conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics with support from OMB Watch, indicates that a recent surge in lobbyist deregistrations spiked in 2008 -- before President Barack Obama took office and began instituting policies that limited federally registered lobbyists' activities.

This report follows a similar study from November, which sought to explain why thousands of lobbyists are no longer registered with the federal government to peddle influence. The conclusion of that analysis, co-written by the Center for Responsive Politics and OMB Watch, was that the most notable increase in deregistrations actually occurred in 2009 (not 2008) when President Barack Obama was on the attack against lobbying influence.

Throughout his run for the White House, Obama hammered on the scourge of “special interest influence,” particularly the outsized and negative role that lobbyists can wield over public policy. Curtailing their influence was, and remains, a key part of his promise to change the culture in Washington that protects monied interests.

To this end, on his very first day in office, Obama issued Executive Order 13490, which included a two-year ban on lobbyists entering the administration from working on issues on which they had lobbied. It also precluded administration officials leaving government from lobbying while he is president.

In March, the White House issued a prohibition on oral communications between federal agency officials and federally registered lobbyists regarding specific Recovery Act projects. (In late July, this prohibition was extended to everyone, not just lobbyists.) And in September, the administration advised agencies and departments of its “aspiration” that they avoid appointing registered lobbyists to serve on federal advisory boards and commissions. The Commerce Department, for one, is already putting this advice into effect for its 16 industry trade advisory committees.

Today's report explains how we reached our initial conclusion about lobbying deregistration -- and why Obama's policies may not have motivated lobbyist deregistrations nearly as much as first believed.

In order to explain the methodology behind these findings, we must first define what it means to “deregister.” Contrary to what many presume, there is no federal form to file, or box to check, that signals a lobbyist’s "deregistration." In fact, technically, there is no such thing as “deregistration” -- it’s just a term of art. CRP has learned the hard way that the process of deregistering is not straightforward. The tabulation of deregistrations is instead a convoluted process with numerous considerations to take into account. Depending on the methodology chosen, it is quite possible to arrive at different conclusions about the frequency and timing of lobbyist deregistrations.

Since there is no simple “deregistration process,” how do we know whether lobbyists are increasing or decreasing in number?

For the purpose of this report, “deregistration” is defined as the act of an individual lobbyist filing termination notices with the Secretary of the Senate of all of his or her active contracts to represent clients. Lobbyists were only considered “deregistered” when they had terminated contracts for all of the clients for which they had previously registered. “Termination” is defined as notice of a lobbyist’s termination of a specific client’s contract. This information is found on Line 23 of the LD-2 reports filed with the House and Senate.

Usually, these terminations are filed in the same year in which a lobbyist had last reported actively lobbying. Often reports indicated terminations for lobbying conducted (and presumably completed) many years prior. Occasionally the termination was signaled for the very same period in which active lobbying had also been reported. In short, the data is complicated and poorly structured. For the task of measuring deregistration, the system leaves much open to interpretation.

Ideally we would know not only whether the numbers are changing but also when these spikes and dips occur, in order to gauge whether they correspond to specific events or societal change -- government actions, the economy, political campaigns, policy outcomes, or even general public sentiment. Unfortunately, because the government is not charged with maintaining and providing statistics on deregistrations, the public has no government record by which to measure whether the administration’s actions are having any effect -- positive or negative.

Although many people view the role of lobbyists with more nuance, large numbers of citizens on the right and left alike would indeed measure the success or failure of this administration’s efforts to strengthen ethics and weaken the grip of influence peddlers by the resulting impact on the ranks of federal lobbyists.

One valid question is whether those leaving the ranks of registered lobbyists are actually continuing much the same work, but fleeing to the shadows, thereby undercutting transparency without changing the nature of Washington’s influence-buying culture. But a more immediate question is this: Have more lobbyists have deregistered and, if so, when did they do it and why?

For the benefit of all involved -- the lobbyists and the lobbied, public interest groups, those charged with overseeing the disclosure process and, most of all, the public -- there is a need for greater clarity about the lobbying disclosure rules and process.

By reviewing the current system, several common sense solutions present themselves as ways to ensure a more accurate understanding of how the system works currently and how it could be improved.

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