Obama’s call for disclosure of lobbying visits falls flat

Congressional leaders offered a chilly response to President Obama’s call for lawmakers to match the White House in publicly disclosing their meetings with lobbyists.

The Republican in charge of government oversight, Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), rejected the suggestion out of hand and brushed the president back by noting reports that White House officials met with lobbyists at nearby coffee shops to avoid their own disclosure rules.

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“I think he feigns perfection without having yet achieved it,” Issa told The Hill. “I do think when the president still has his people traipsing across the street to the coffee shop so they didn’t technically meet at the White House, quite frankly he has more to do.”

Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, politely suggested that Obama butt out of congressional affairs and said the House is responsible for making its rules, not the White House.

“It’s very clear that this is another body, and as much as [Obama] might want to control this body, I believe that Speaker [John] Boehner [R-Ohio] is on the road to taking us to a next higher level of accountability,” Issa said. “At the same time, we have some constitutional responsibilities and rights and we expect to use those.”

Issa also dismissed the idea on its merits and said the president uses the term lobbyist “fairly indiscriminately.” At one point, the chairman asked the reporter interviewing him, “Are you a lobbyist?”

In his speech Tuesday, Obama said Congress should follow the White House’s lead in releasing its visitor records. 

“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,” Obama said. 

“We meet with constituents far more than we meet with lobbyists,” Issa said. “Yes, they are ‘lobbying’ for a cause, but they come because they have children with autism. They come because they’re nurses finding it difficult back home. They come with their problems. They may or may not come with a trade-association rep. The vast majority of visitors to congressional offices both here and in the district, are not, I repeat, are not registered lobbyists.

“I’m for transparency. I want to have more of it,” he added. “At the same time, if you send me a letter, that letter should not automatically be public. You have an expectation that you can address your member of Congress, and you can do so with a degree of confidentiality. It happens every day. It needs to happen every day.

“We take on a huge amount of people with veterans’ problems, people who have tax problems, people who have immigration problems,” Issa said. “Would you have us put all of that on a website, with the names? Probably not.”

Boehner offered no immediate response to Obama’s proposal on lobbying.

A GOP aide dismissed the idea: “No one will take that proposal seriously until the White House starts following their own rules.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he’d be “cautious” in his response to Obama’s proposal before seeing the details.

“I am for, certainly, the ability for people to seek redress of their government without any kind of chilling effect on the ability to do that,” Cantor told The Hill.

Republicans were not the only ones questioning the feasibility of Capitol Hill disclosing its visitors.

“Sen. Reid is all for transparency, so we will take a look at it, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. The Capitol is inherently more open to the people than the White House,” said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “On Thursdays alone, Sen. Reid holds a free breakfast that is open to any Nevadan constituent who comes to Washington. Some days we will have as many as 150 people at that one breakfast alone.”

Aides to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not respond to requests for comment.

But Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hit back at Issa, noting that the GOP chairman in December sent a letter to more than 150 companies, think tanks and trade groups asking them for suggestions on federal regulations that should be relaxed.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t be fond of a proposal that injects transparency into who he’s meeting with,” Israel said.

Israel said he’s “all for” the president’s proposal. 

“I think people have the right to know who members of Congress are meeting with,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “That kind of transparency can never hurt.

Lobbyists said they could support disclosure of their visits to Capitol Hill but were weary of the White House’s sole focus on registered lobbyists. 

Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the Obama administration has not been as forthcoming about its meetings with lobbyists as the president suggested Tuesday. He noted that Treasury Department officials have been meeting with lobbyists as they consider how to reform the tax code. 

“Those things are going on. They are not disclosing them,” said Marlowe, himself a lobbyist as president of Marlowe & Co.

Marlowe said he could support disclosure of lobbyist visits to Congress, but only if every visitor a lawmaker has, including constituents, is released to the public. 

“I don’t see why lobbyists who are registered should be singled out,” Marlowe said. “If they want to do it for every advocate, I see no problem with it.”

Former Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), now a government-affairs counselor for K&L Gates, said he would support disclosure since it would be “enlightening” for the public to see how little time lawmakers spend with lobbyists. A congressman for almost 20 years, Walsh estimates he spent less than 10 percent of his time meeting with lobbyists. 

“I think the transparency of members of Congress disclosing their visitors would be a good thing, but I question the value of it,” Walsh said. “It would create a lot of paperwork that no one would read except for the good-government groups.”

Ethics watchdogs, like Craig Holman of Public Citizen, were not impressed by Obama’s State of the Union address. 

While saying the president’s call for more lobbyist disclosure was “notable,” Holman called the speech “a disappointing presentation” since Obama made no mention of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. 

Last year, Obama called for campaign finance reform legislation as he confronted the justices on that ruling, which removed limits on outside corporate and union spending in political campaigns. Congress failed to pass legislation last year in response to the court decision. 

Other reform advocates agreed. 

“It is always nice to have your issue mentioned, but compared to last year, it was anemic,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation.

Wonderlich questioned whether the White House would spend political capital on lobbying disclosure — like it did last year in trying to counteract Citizens United with the Disclose Act — or whether the line was simply a toss-out in the speech. 

“Is this the beginning of them making a real effort on lobbying disclosure? Or was this just a jab at the legislature?” Wonderlich said. “The big thing … the president needs to do is use the bully pulpit to push for a real lobbying disclosure reform.”