Anti-abortion-rights group takes aim at disclosure bill

The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) is leading the charge in opposition to legislation that would require greater disclosure of executive-branch officials’ contacts with private parties, saying the bill would stifle citizens’ ability to influence public policy.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee unanimously approved the legislation last month. Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.) are the lead sponsors.
The aim of the bill, according to Waxman, is to increase the transparency of the interaction of federal officials with those seeking to sway policymakers.

In a hearing the day before the committee marked up the measure, Waxman said the bill is “a comprehensive reform measure that would increase transparency in the executive branch by requiring senior government officials to report significant contacts with lobbyists. It would end the secret meetings between special interests and government officials.”
As examples of the alleged secrecy he sought to uncover, Waxman cited Vice President Cheney’s refusal to disclose details about the activities of his energy policy task force and the White House’s reluctance to reveal information about meetings between President Bush’s aides and the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But the bill would extend beyond lobbyists and require covered agency officials, including senior military officers, to record communications from any private party offering an opinion on a policy issue.

These requirements would inhibit the ability of private citizens, and the groups that represent them, to weigh in on public policy, contended NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson.

Johnson and his colleagues at the NRLC have launched a campaign to get likeminded groups to speak out against the bill, circulating a memo outlining their concerns about the effect of the legislation on grassroots campaigns or actions by individual citizens. The NRLC has also begun to makes its case with NRLC-friendly lawmakers and featured this issue in the latest edition of the newsletter it sends to its members, Johnson said.

The NRLC’s complaints about the Waxman-Davis bill echo the outcries from a variety of organizations to the Senate’s consideration of new disclosure requirements for grassroots campaigns to lobby Congress. “We see this as part of a larger picture,” Johnson said.

The grassroots-lobbying issue attracted the ire of organizations across the political spectrum, including groups such as NRLC and the American Civil Liberties Union. So far, the Waxman-Davis bill has not generated the same level of activity, Johnson said.

The legislation would require political appointees and senior military officers to record all “significant contacts” from any private party weighing in on public-policy issues. The Office of Government Ethics would maintain those disclosures in a searchable database. The Government Reform Committee marked up a similar bill last April but it was not included in the Republican leadership’s lobbying and ethics reform package.

The Waxman-Davis measure defines “significant contact” as “oral or written communication (including electronic communication) that is made by a private party to a covered executive branch official in which such private party seeks to influence official action by any officer or employee of the executive branch of the United States.” The president, vice president and their respective chiefs of staff would be exempt.

Johnson argued that the categories of covered officials, the forms of communication and the sources of the communications as defined by the bill are overly broad and that such requirements would discourage officials from interacting with the public. “All three of those definitions are extremely expansive,” he said.

“A federal official ought to be able to get confidential advice through any means of communication,” Johnson said, adding that the existing rules that apply to paid lobbyists under the Lobbying Disclosure Act are adequate.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires lobbyists to report on what federal agencies they contact but not on specific meetings or officials’ names. In addition to this law, communications with agencies related to rulemaking or other formal activities are governed by the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires public disclosure of the comments received by agencies.
Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said his organization supports the goal of increasing transparency of federal officials’ interactions with private interests. Federal officials should have no reason to be “ashamed” of their contacts with advocates for the issues they work on, he said.

Moreover, Holman questioned why groups such as NRLC would oppose disclosures of their communications with federal officials. “Perhaps they feel that they don’t want to be on record,” he said.

Holman conceded, however, that the officials, private parties and communications that would be covered under the bill might be too broad.

“I wish it would have been written with more precise language” that restricts the definition of “significant contact” to oral or in-person meetings, he said, adding, “We don’t want to be inundated with useless information” about letters, e-mails, voicemails or other communications from private citizens.