Are lobbyists discouraging some of the best and brightest in the private sector from working for the government? The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a conference on September 14, 2009 to discuss the role that special interests have in shaping American policy and whether current laws are effective in restraining excessive abuses of the system.
Bob Kaiser, Associate Editor and Senior Correspondent for the Washington Post and author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, argued that the main purpose of today’s lobbyist is not “getting something done,” but “preventing something from getting done.”
Critics of the lobbying profession argue that extensive federal government programs are promoting a culture that is dependant upon preserving the status quo.
“We very, very rarely end a federal program or a federal benefit or a tax break that goes to a particular interest,” he said.
Kaiser pointed out that lobbying is also “a career choice for public servants.” Those who desire to go into the lobbying profession for altruistic reasons may find themselves disillusioned once they see the many imperfections in the current system.
So what is the solution? Kaiser argued that enforcing laws already on the books (such as gift bans) will be effective only to a certain extent. Transparency about interactions with lobbyists is the key to reform.
“Let’s make every contact between lobbyists and officials transparent. In the computer age it would be…easy to require every official who was visited by a lobbyist to report the visit that night on some website that all of us could then find and look at,” he said.
This idea is bipartisan in nature, but it carries with it numerous First Amendment ramifications. Groups like CAP want to regulate the lobbying industry, but raise a hue and cry when lobbyists respond to those regulations by taking their case directly to the people instead.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed similar concerns, characterizing those who protested President Obama’s Health Care plan at town halls this summer as “astroturf” groups. Progressives insist on even more regulation so that an unassuming public can be “protected” from being given too much “misinformation” about issues such as health care. In other words, CAP wants to have its cake and eat it too.
Patrick Griffin, Scholar in residence in the Department of Government and the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies and Academic Director of the Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute (PAAI), suggested that the Obama administration make its lobbying reforms “more muscular” by posting “any contact with an outside interest, not just a lobbyist, that was expressly about the content of a policy.”
“I believe that such a requirement would encourage officials to have…positive public rationales for meetings with interest groups instead of allowing to do, as some are want to do, publicly deny their value or relevance while quietly welcoming their financial support and expertise,” he said.
Some critics argue that this discourages having the meeting in the first place. Griffin responded to these concerns by pointing out that it also encourages other meetings which might not otherwise have taken place.
Melanie Sloan, Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that one cannot have an “Emperor has no clothes” mentality when it comes to lobbying reform.
“A great example of that is when the [Obama] administration banned lobbyists from communicating with any administration officials for stimulus funding,” she said, arguing that this ban “did nothing to guarantee that improper influences or pressure wouldn’t drive the distribution of such funds.”
The reason for this, according to Sloan, was that while registered lobbyists were not allowed to meet with government officials, other high-profile figures such as bank presidents, corporate directors, and business executives still had access. These business leaders essentially became “de facto lobbyists,” and were not subject to the disclosure requirements incumbent upon registered lobbyists.
“[A] lobbyist with the Ferguson Group…couldn’t attend meetings himself, but he brought local officials to Washington, briefed them, provided them with a list of questions, drove them to the government official’s meetings, and explained what the government official’s answers meant,” she said. “So what have you fixed with that kind of change?”
Such meetings, naturally, went largely unreported.
“During the week of April 20th, the Energy Department, which was distributing about 40 billion dollars in stimulus money, disclosed only two lobbying contacts over the course of the week. So, clearly meetings were taking place. We just weren’t learning about them,” Sloan noted.
As a solution, the Obama administration changed their approach and barred anyone from speaking to officials about competitive grants once all applications had been submitted. Registered lobbyists were allowed to talk with officials, but all such contacts had to be reported.
Consequently, the Obama administration officials have reported “remarkably few lobbying contacts.”
“The prohibition encouraged participating by people who are not required to register and abide by rules set forth in the stringent regulations that apply to lobbyists, thereby decreasing transparency and accountability,” Sloan said. “It also discouraged accurate reporting under the Lobbying and Disclosure Act, especially for those who are on the ‘cusp’ of meeting the definitional requirement of a registered lobbyist.”
To obtain transparency, Sloan argued that “all contact with private interests” should be disclosed—not just contacts with lobbyists. Relevant information such as the person’s name and business affiliation, as well as the date and subject matter of the contact, should also be disclosed.
Disagreeing with the Obama administration’s initial self-imposed rule of not hiring any lobbyists to work at the White House, Sloan lamented what she called the “negative effects on non-profits” caused by the ban.
“First, folks no longer want to lobby for non-profits for fear of losing the possibility of working for the administration later. Secondly, some people at non-profits may not be registering as lobbyists if, again, they’re on the ‘cusp,’ because they’d rather preserve the ability to go to the administration later than preserve the transparency now. So we really need a more common sense approach to all this,” she said.
Fortunately for Sloan, this ban didn’t last long.
Another issue is whether Congress is properly enforcing ethics rules regarding lobbying. Past scandals on both sides of the aisle have Sloan convinced that this is not happening.
“The problem is there’s no enforcement of House and Senate ethics rules. There wasn’t any enforcement then and there’s still no enforcement now,” Sloan said.
Sloan argued that Congress must take some personal responsibility and say “no” to lobbyists when the ethics rules require it. Interestingly, when considering this talk about personal responsibility, none of CAP’s panelists advocated for the one solution that would arguably do more to root out corruption than any other. Smaller government anyone?
Brittany Fortier is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.