By Elana Schor - 08/17/05 12:00 AM EDT
Both the House and Senate estimate they have received less than half of their anticipated haul of lobbying disclosures despite this week’s filing deadline. Lobbyists’ failure to meet the deadline seems to show that heightened public scrutiny of their expenses and activities has had little to no impact on their filing practices.
The Aug. 15 filing deadline is the last time lobbyists will be allowed to mail in their disclosure reports. House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) issued an edict in June that no paper disclosures will be accepted in the future. The next filing deadline is Feb. 14.
Ney spokesman Brian Walsh said the Office of the Clerk of the House, which collects and catalogs lobbying disclosures in August and February, expects only 1,000 of the 20,000 forms to be submitted online for this cycle.
Walsh also addressed government watchdog groups that have criticized the House for what they consider a failure to comply with the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995. The law requires detailed descriptions of the issues and bills that a lobbyist works on and mandates swift public availability of the forms. While the Senate maintains a broadly searchable database of electronic images of lobbying forms, the House has no online lobbying disclosure presence.
“There are two main reasons for having lobbying reports filed electronically: to make it easier [to process and] to make it more searchable. I certainly expect we’re going to move in that direction,” Walsh said. “[Ney] was disappointed that these so-called good-government groups didn’t say anything about it. Whether they have trouble supporting Republican initiatives simply because it’s Republicans doing it, I don’t know.”
Pam Gavin, superintendent of the Senate’s Office of Public Records, said she had received about one-third of her 18,000 to 19,000 total expected lobbying disclosure forms by the postmark deadline. She anticipates only 10 to 12 percent of those forms to be electronic.
“It’s better than tax day,” Gavin said. “Usually, because of the August recess, we get more reports in earlier than we would in February, which is when everyone’s up here lobbying.”
Gavin declined to comment on her ongoing discussions with her House counterparts on possible plans to coordinate the implementation of Ney’s all-electronic filing but said she prefers electronic forms because they cut down on work for her nine-member staff, only three of whom work full time on lobbying.
Earlier this year, a rash of improperly disclosed congressional travel paid for by lobbyists brought increased public attention to lobbying ethics and regulations. The plight of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, recently indicted on charges of wire fraud, helped generate an outcry on the Hill for a tightening of LDA rules.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for government-watchdog group Public Citizen, praised Gavin for her office’s adherence to the LDA and criticized the Clerk of the House for what he characterized as a refusal to meet with promoters of lobbying reform. Holman pointed to the veil of secrecy that shrouds LDA enforcement as a roadblock to transparency in lobbying disclosure.
“Neither the secretary of the Senate nor the clerk of the House have direct enforcement authority, other than sending out a letter to lobbyists” who fail to file financial and personal disclosure reports, Holman said. Both offices are obliged to refer noncompliance cases to the Justice Department, but neither will disclose how many cases they refer and the Justice Department has been similarly silent on how many it has pursued.
When Congress returns from recess, Public Citizen will convene meetings with similarly inclined groups to target strategy for giving lobbying disclosure violations as much media attention as travel violations have received. The goal will be to generate momentum for LDA overhaul bills sponsored by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).
The American League of Lobbyists (ALL), meanwhile, will unveil a set of five core lobbying principles next week in an effort to redeem the profession’s recently tarnished public image and to bring focus to LDA compliance issues.
Paul Miller, president of ALL, questioned the wisdom of pursuing the Feingold and Meehan-Emanuel bills before resolving current lobbying disclosure difficulties. If the Justice Department were to begin disseminating information on its lobbying disclosure cases, he added, it could jeopardize the careers of lobbyists whose noncompliance might turn out to be inadvertent.
“I’m not so sure we shouldn’t be sharing that information,” Miller said, “[but] do you publish the name of somebody who forgot to file or filed a form incorrectly a little bit? I think it’s unfair.”