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The Transparency Lobby

This January 3, 2011, photo shows a 'K' Street sign in northwest Washington, D.C. Addresses on 'K' Street are known as a center for numerous think tanks, lobbyists, and advocacy groups.(KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Eliza Newlin Carney
March 21, 2011

Frustrated by the growing secrecy that shrouds political spending, some good-government advocates have set out to at least pull back the curtain on lobbyists.

They’ve found some surprising allies on K Street, where many lobbyists themselves argue that outdated disclosure rules leave a world of lobbying activities unreported. Under current rules, only those who spend 20 percent of their time lobbying must register, they note, exempting a vast army of public relations, grassroots, “grasstops,” and strategic consultants who have redefined the industry.

“We have to redefine what the term lobbying is,” said Paul A. Miller, past president of the American League of Lobbyists and president of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, “because there’s a new way to lobby in 2011, and that includes PR consultants, grassroots consultants,” and many others operating outside the disclosure rules.


Miller is helping spearhead an ALL working group that will report on the state of the industry in July. The lobbyists league has already endorsed eliminating the 20 percent exemption, arguing that all lobbyists should be held to the same standard.

It’s an unlikely point of agreement between the ALL and the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation, which has crafted its own model legislation to improve lobbying disclosure. The Sunlight proposal includes more-sweeping provisions that K Street professionals reject, including a recommendation that all lobbyists report significant contacts with covered officials within 72 hours.

But at a Capitol Hill forum last week, Miller and Sunlight Foundation lobbyist Lisa Rosenberg shook hands in agreement that the 20 percent exemption should be tossed.

A task force of the American Bar Association is also game to throw out that exemption; in January, it recommended a package of lobbying reforms that the full ABA will consider this summer.

The task force set out to define “the next generation of lobbying reforms,” said Thomas M. Susman, who directs the ABA governmental-affairs office. Organized by the ABA’s Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice Section, the task force made some recommendations that make lobbyists look like reform advocates. One proposal to separate lobbying from fundraising would raise some eyebrows on Capitol Hill. In essence, a lobbyist would not be permitted to lobby a member of Congress for whom he or she had raised campaign money in the past two years. It would discourage K Street pros from bundling donations and organizing fundraisers, although direct contributions from individual lobbyists would be permitted.

“Save us from being shaken down by night and vilified by day,” summed up Susman.  Nothing “contributes to the perception of lobbyists as agents of corruption, rather than as public-policy advocates” more than “the confounding” of their roles as lobbyists and fundraisers, the task force report states.

Lobbyists are responding in part to an ongoing image problem as well as to industry scrutiny. They ranked dead last in a December Gallup poll asking respondents to rank “the honesty and ethical standards” of people in different fields. The shadow of the Jack Abramoff scandal still hangs over K Street, thanks in part to the release of the movie “Casino Jack.” And last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling to free up political spending has unleashed renewed attacks on “special interests,” from activists and politicians alike, including some in the tea party.

“I think lobbyists see the handwriting on the wall,” said Rosenberg, of the Sunlight Foundation.

Having imposed new executive-branch restrictions on lobbyists when he took office, President Obama has called yet again on Congress to “do what the White House does” and report meetings with lobbyists online. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., will introduce legislation shortly aimed at shedding more light on lobbyist meetings and activities.

“Confidence in Congress is at an all-time low,” Quigley told National Journal  via e-mail. “If we want to regain the public’s trust, we have to be open and honest about who meets with us, and that means increasing oversight of lobbyists.”

Of course, some lobbyists argue that no new rules are needed and even existing regulations have backfired. A recent Politico report suggested that some White House officials are now meeting with lobbyist in coffee shops to avoid showing up on White House visitor logs, prompting Common Cause to call on the White House to disclose all meetings, regardless of location.

Executive branch lobbying restrictions “may actually have reduced transparency” by causing lobbyists to terminate their registrations, said the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest in a statement released last week. The number of registered lobbyists actually dropped slightly to 12,986 last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, even as overall lobbying expenditures held steady at $3.49 billion.

The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest is one group that objects to ending the 20 percent exemption. Requiring all lobbyists to register would have “a devastating impact” on nonprofit and public-interest lobbyists, who have been the  “collateral damage” of new executive-branch restrictions, said center President Larry Ottinger.

Still, a surprising number of lobbyists have joined calls to improve transparency on K Street—a refreshing reversal. As Rosenberg put it, “If we can’t follow the money behind these [campaign] ads, let’s follow the action of the lobbyists.”





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