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Analysis

Lobbyists Call for Lobbying Reform

POGO recently sat down with Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), to discuss ALL's recommendations for reforming the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA). ALL's proposed reforms would force more lobbyists to disclose their lobbying activities and attempt to close many loopholes that continue to plague lobbying registration.

While ALL's recommendations do not amend all faults with the LDA, POGO was happy to sit down and discuss the group’s suggestions. To be clear, POGO isn't opposed to the act of lobbying. In fact, we at POGO lobby within legal limits too. The problem is not the act of lobbying, it is the lack of disclosure and the nexus between lobbying and campaign contributions or government contracts or grants.

Primarily, ALL wants more lobbyists to register their lobbying activities to the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate, who jointly control lobbying registration. If the idea of a lobbyist association advocating tighter registration requirements sounds funny to you, you're not alone. The idea is that greater registration would both make the lobbying business more transparent and improve its reputation.

The problem, as ALL puts it, is that lobbyists are getting a bad rap:

There is an unprecedented level of public distrust about how Congress functions and conducts its business. Much of this distrust is focused on both Congress and lobbyists. The “registered lobbyist” is oftentimes seen by the public, elected officials and the media as a convenient scapegoat for all sorts of issues related to Congress’ low approval ratings, including the perception that lobbyists use gifts and campaign contributions to improperly influence legislative outcomes.

In a letter sent to President Obama earlier this year, ALL argued that loopholes in the LDA are encouraging lobbyists to deregister, which has in turn "limited the free speech of those of us who remain registered."

ALL recommends eliminating other loopholes and exemptions from current LDA statute. ALL writes that even federal employees “who make contacts with Congress in order to affect public policy should also not be exempt from the LDA.” It cites lobbyists employed by local and state governments, lobbyists for religious institutions, and federal employees who lobby as people whose activities should be registered in the LDA Database. Additionally, ALL proposes shortening the registration period for lobbyists from 45 to 20 calendar days from the time of lobbying to encourage compliance.

ALL also recommends requiring the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct an annual report on the efficacy of the LDA. Such a report would, according to ALL, both assess the strength of the LDA and give the GAO the opportunity to suggest further improvements.

Furthermore, ALL proposes that control of lobbyist registration should be shifted to the office within the Department of Justice (DOJ) that handles issues concerning the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). In POGO’s meeting, Marlowe said that that office has handled FARA registration well, and would be able to hold U.S. lobbyists’ feet to the fire.

POGO is glad to see a lobbying association attempting to curb non-registration and other abuses brought on by the increasingly toothless LDA. While POGO supports ALL’s efforts to lower the threshold for lobbyist registration, especially for those with a financial or regulatory interest, ALL’s proposals don’t necessarily go far enough in reforming lobbying registration. Though ALL has proposed cutting in half the time requirements for in-house lobbyist registration, POGO believes all in-house lobbyists who receive federal contracts and grants should register.

Additionally, lobbyists should be required to disclose more information about their activities. Currently, lobbying disclosure forms don’t require lobbyists to submit key details, such as specific contacts and the subjects of their lobbying. Without this kind of information, it is nearly impossible to understand the nature of the lobbying and the true impact it has on policy and legislative decision-making. POGO would also like to see more reporting on the government side—agencies should be required to report communications with lobbyists on policy and federal spending.

Last but not least, POGO is also concerned by ALL’s recommendation that management of lobbying registration should be shifted to the same office within the Department of Justice (DOJ) that handles issues concerning the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). POGO has been less than impressed with DOJ's enforcement of FARA—at points, decades have passed without prosecution and audits of FARA records have been few and far between.

The Sunlight Foundation has similarly mixed reactions to ALL’s proposed reforms. Sunlight lamented that ALL’s proposals would “reduce the size of the loophole for in-house lobbyists, but just barely.” The Sunlight Foundation says that unless the 20 percent loophole is completely eliminated (even for in-house lobbyists), lobbyists will still find ways to bypass the system and continue their influence-peddling.

ALL is not the first group to come forward with recommendations for lobbying reform. In January 2011, the American Bar Association (ABA) proposed a series of recommendations that went far in attempting to reform lobbying registration. As POGO noted earlier, ABA’s recommendations focused on closing loopholes that allowed non-registration, separating lobbying from the “political money machine,” and improving enforcement. ABA also recommended that lobbyists disclose more information regarding specific lobbying activities. While POGO applauded ABA’s attempts at reform, Marlowe and ALL expressed concern that ABA’s recommendations are unrealistic at points.

On a larger scale, POGO has kept a close watch on President Obama’s commitment to lobbying reform throughout his administration. Upon taking office, President Obama issued an Ethics Pledge attempting to keep any recent lobbyists out of the White House. He also significantly limited lobbying activities on all Recovery Act spending. While POGO applauded President Obama’s efforts then and at other times throughout his administration, we have also been disappointed by the Administration’s use of the waiver in cases where it helps private or personal interests rather than in cases where it might bring a public interest lobbyist into the fold. We’ve also been disappointed with the worthless executive branch lobbying requirements that are often skirted.

POGO hopes that Congress and the Administration take up the issue of reforming lobbying registration, especially considering such a prominent collection of lobbyists affirmatively want tougher registration laws. By registering those actively seeking to influence government policies, laws, regulations, missions, programs, and projects, the public will have a better insight into government decisions, and who they might benefit.

Andrew Wyner is a POGO research associate.