Spread Accountability: Stop Stealth Lobbying

By Lisa Rosenberg
Government Affairs Consultant
The Sunlight Foundation, Washington

“Former Senator Joins Firm as Strategic Adviser.”

Such headlines appear in business sections and political rags with banal regularity as
members of Congress, agency heads and high-ranking congressional staff decide to trade
their government contacts for cash.

It may be difficult to close the revolving door, but it shouldn’t be hard to find out what those who cycle through it are doing or for whom they are doing it.

Unfortunately, it is all too common for the influence peddlers with the best connections to go underground when they leave government service. People like Tom Daschle, Newt Gingrich, George Allen, Chris Dodd and Jon Corzine have all joined the political influence industry but have taken advantage of a loophole in the law that means they don’t have to register as lobbyists. It’s time to uncover the stealth lobbyists. If you are paid to lobby, you must report your lobbying activities.

Merriam Webster defines lobbying as “conduct[ing] activities aimed at influencing public officials and especially members of a legislative body on legislation.” Under that definition, there can be no doubt that Daschle and company are lobbyists, not “consultants,” “strategic advisers” or “historians,” even if none of them filled out the paperwork.

The public has a right to know who is being paid to lobby, who is paying them, and what issues they are advocating. Former members of Congress and other government officials have significantly more political and financial pull than many of the Mom and Pop lobby shops that must report. Yet, because the law says reporting is only necessary if a lobbyist spends more than 20 percent of her time lobbying for any particular client, the public is completely in the dark about many of those who wield the most influence.

In addition to capturing more lobbyists, the law should be updated to disclose more of what those lobbyists are doing. Right now, lobbyists do not have to disclose who they are lobbying or their specific “ask.” Publicly accessible databases should be filled with the details of the influence industry, not just the broad outlines of who is pulling the levers on Capitol Hill.

Making lobbyists’ work more transparent is one way to track influence and ensure accountability inside the beltway. Improved disclosures will also improve the dialogue in Congress by ensuring that all sides can react and respond to the arguments their representatives are hearing from lobbyists. If a voter sees that his Congressman has met with a lobbyist whose views they oppose, they can contact her office to make sure their viewpoints are heard, too.

Congress is resistant to ending the practice of stealth lobbying. Current lawmakers want to leave open the option of playing the influence game without being tainted by the proverbial “Scarlet L.” But just as there is a right to lobby, there is a right for the public to know who has the ear of their representatives, and to whom their representatives are responding. A more transparent lobbying disclosure regime will level the playing field, deter corruption and foster greater accountability.

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