It was just one line in the State of the Union address, but for advocates of transparency in Congress it was an important one.
“Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done, put that information online,” President Obama said on Tuesday.
The White House has built a reputation for being hostile to lobbyists and the president tried to burnish that reputation by suggesting that members of Congress should follow the same path, by reporting every meeting they have with lobbyists. At the end of each quarter, lobbyists must report if they met with members of Congress, but they don’t need to report when the meetings occurred or with whom specifically they met. The president wants more, and he wants to put the burden on Congress.
For Illinois Democrat Rep. Mike Quigley, who started the transparency caucus and introduced the Transparency in Government Act in 2010, Obama’s statement was a step in the right direction when it comes to disclosure.
“Both my bill and the president’s speech last night speak to the fact that to govern effectively, you must have the public’s trust,” he told National Journal Wednesday. “A key step on the road to restoring that trust is to have all branches of government disclose meetings with lobbyists. Now it’s time for Congress to act.”
It’s an idea that the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to creating a more transparent government, is excited about.
“This is an important issue,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for Sunlight. In a post-Citizens United world, lobbyists can use their coffers to try making sweeping alterations to the debate of campaigns. “We don’t want money to distort our public policy, and transparency can help curb their power.”
But, Wonderlich says Obama’s one line does not come close to covering the complexity of the issue. First, he said, the definition of a lobbyist (someone who spends more than 20 percent of their paid time lobbying, and who has contact with at least one official) is hard to enforce. It would be easy, he said, for a lobbyist to say he only spends 15 percent of his paid time lobbying and therefore not have to disclose meetings with members of Congress.
Also, Wonderlich said that what the White House does isn’t far enough for full transparency. As it stands, the White House publishes a visitors log that allows the public to see which lobbyists visited, but not until four months later. For there to be effective transparency, he said, it needs to happen in real time.
To try and make this happen, Sunlight has drafted the Real Time Online Transparency Act, which would take Obama’s one-line idea and create a law that tracks “significant contact” within 72 hours between a lobbyist and a member of Congress or executive official.
“It’s fantastic that he called for this, because now we are having this discussion,” Wonderlich said. “But there’s a lot more to do than just say it in the speech.”