Thursday, January 05, 2006

McCain and Lobbying Disclosure Reform

Before Jack Abramoff pled guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges, the erstwhile reformer, Sen. John McCain, introduced a bill, charitably called the "Lobbying Transparency and Accountibility Act of 2005." As others have pointed out, the bill has more than its share of problems, including defining just about any attempt to contact your Congressman in response to an advertisement as grassroots lobbying.

But, in looking through the bill, I would like to point out three things, only one of which can be considered positive. First, the good news, the bill does require the electronic filing of quarterly lobbying reports. Currently, lobbying disclosure reports are due twice per year and then 45 days after the close of the period. Thus, the mid-year report is currently due on August 15, for lobbying done between January and June. In the modern age, when just about every lobbyist on the Hill has a Blackberry, electronic filing is a no brainer. More timely reporting will give the public access to better data so they can understant who is influencing Congress and make their decisions based on decent information.

But the good news ends there. Every lobbyist in town knows that there have been almost no prosecutions for lobbying disclosure violations. That belief is well-founded and unlikely to change. I have looked through the bill from front to back, twice, and have found nothing that actually beefs up enforcement of lobbying regulation. Oh, there are new rules, but no new mechanisms to actually enforce the rules. No additional money for investigators or ethics staff, no money for this new electronic filing system, nothing. Now, if the purpose of Congress is to crack-down on the abuses of lobbying, then this bill will not do it.

Next, buried in the bill is this little gem--lobbyists have to disclose all of their campaign contributions in the new lobbying disclosure requirements. Big deal you say? Yes it is as there is as 1) this is a massive instrusion into the private political activities of lobbyists without a compelling need and 2) it is duplicative of law that already exists. The provision, (Sec. 106 of the S. 2128) states that all registrants and employees of registrants (i.e. in-house lobbyists at corporations and trade associations--as opposed to the hired guns like Abramoff) are required to list:
"(A) the name of each Federal candidate or officeholder, leadership PAC, or political party committee, to whom a contribution was made, and the date and amount of such contribution; and
(B) the name of each Federal candidate or officeholder, or a leadership PAC of such candidate or officeholder, or political party committee for whom a fundraising event was hosted, cohosted, or otherwise sponsored, the date and location of the event, and the total amount raised by the event"

So if you are a lobbyist you must disclose each and every political contribution you personally make. Nevermind that the data is already collected by the FEC for all contributions in excess of $200 reported by the candidate or PAC that gets the money. Here, just because you are a lobbyist, you have to tell everyone if you have given $100 to your brother-in-law who is running a quixotic campaign for Congress. Why does Congress feel the need for this? True, lobbyists give a lot of money to candidates, but why this additional restriction.

The privacy concerns are this. The $200 minimum under FEC rules serves a purpose of expanding disclosure of big contributors to campaigns, because, as the theory goes, the disclosure of smaller contributions is not need to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption since such small contributions are not considered large enough to be corrupting. Fine, why then does a lobbyist who gives under that threshold somehow more corrupting than the average Joe? What if the lobbyist gives a mere $200 to a candidate or PAC in order to have that contribution be private from her employer? Because all contributions are going to be reported to one's employer or clients, what about the vindictive employer/client who does not like the lobbyist's political choices? Say you are a lobbyist for a big telecommunications firm and you give money to a candidate who has expressed positions contrary to the firms interest. What happens then? It is after all possible to have political opinions different from your clients.

This bill has some good things going for it, but there is so much more wrong with it. Since it is still legal to do so, be sure to contact your Senators and Congressmen and tell them to vote against this bill.

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