Monday's call from former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) to clean up Washington by reforming lobbying laws should be commended for its ambition, but would his recommendations even work?
Bush called for three reforms: 1) broadening the official definition of lobbyist to include ambiguous work such as "government relations"; 2) increasing lobbying disclosure from quarterly to weekly; and 3) extending the lobbying "cooling off" period to six years for former members of Congress. He also pledged to limit lobbying of his White House by former administration officials.
It is hardly surprising to hear a presidential candidate decry the work of lobbyists and lobbying. The public holds few professions in such low regard as the lobbyist, so, short of a calling for a "Game of Thrones"-style flaying for all registered lobbyists, these ideas are unlikely to turn off many voters.
In many ways, these are sensible reforms, as they intend to address the related problems of the revolving door between Congress and corporate lobbying, the lack of transparency about lobbying, and the unequal access to elected officials. I suspect, however, these reforms would change little about the current state of affairs in Washington. More reporting would increase what we know about lobbying — a boon to my political science colleagues, but would it provide any meaningful new information? We know that lobbyists frequently meet with members of Congress; more frequent reporting would only tell us that faster.
New definitions of lobbying, too, make some sense, and would help to curb the lobbying-by-another name phenomenon that has run rampant across Washington of late. Disclosure avoidance, because influencing government officials can be legally labelled advocacy, has frustrated recent lobbying reforms. But, again, a new definition that still passes constitutional muster would merely open new loopholes for evasion. This would particularly be the case if we extended the "cooling off" period. Former members of Congress would now confront even more years to sneak around the rules, hardly a major advance in equalizing access to sitting members of Congress for the American public.
What is most striking, though, is the missed opportunity. Bush's promises for a future presidency could have instead been bold action for today. For the next 15 months, Bush only has the authority to decide on the practices of his campaign. He has the power to enact lobbying reform, and stand behind his principles as he travels the country.
For example, he could refuse to hire any former lobbyists to his campaign staff. He could also turn down donations from lobbyists and ask his donors to give directly to the campaign rather than to lobbyist-bundlers. And, he could report on his website every meeting he and his senior staff hold with a lobbyist on campaign and policy strategy.
If Jeb Bush is serious about curbing the influence of lobbying — and I have every reason to take him at his word — these bold actions would demonstrate his commitment to change. He would show voters in Republican primaries and the nation that he is campaigning in the same way he intends to govern.
Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York, John Jay College, and author of Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement, due out in August.