Railing against lobbyists creates a false sense of corruption

The drafters of the LDA did not believe that all individuals involved in lobbying had to register.  They required that an individual had to make at least two contacts with a government official to be deemed a lobbyist. And, to distinguish between executives whose primary responsibilities are running a company but make occasional visits to Capitol Hill and those whose main purpose is to lobby, they created the so-called 20 percent exception. 

With the increasing focus on lobbyists, some argue that registration should be required by those who spend any time on lobbying activities as well as by individuals who make no contacts at all but only provide strategic advice.

{mosads}Why do individuals shirk from registration anyway and, what’s more, why are so many deregistering?  After the LDA was enacted, many executives who only occasionally visited Washington registered, even if they spent little of their time lobbying, reasoning, “If I am meeting with a member of Congress, shouldn’t I be registered?”  As result, there was a surfeit of information about who was lobbying.     

All of that changed in 2007. The Abramoff scandals ushered in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act which restricted the ability of lobbyists to interact with Members and staff and prohibited entertainment and travel paid for by lobbyists. The Obama administration applied its own restrictions to lobbyists by prohibiting any political appointee from accepting anything of value from a registered lobbyist. Although these were rational restrictions designed to eliminate even the appearance of impropriety, many lobbyists felt singled out by these prohibitions.

Unfortunately, the administration went much further by restricting the free flow of information from lobbyists. First, the White House prohibited lobbyists from meeting with officials if the subject related to funding under the Stimulus Act. Later, it banned registered lobbyists from sitting on federal advisory boards. Today, it often does not allow lobbyists to be in a room when a senior executive branch official is present. According to a recent New York Times article, however, that hasn’t stopped many administration officials from meeting with lobbyists at neighborhood coffee shops. 

The singling out of lobbyists and the attendant attachment of the Scarlet L has caused individuals to seek loopholes and exceptions to avoid registration. When someone, no less than the president of the United States, says lobbyists are bad, who would want to be one? It is ironic that those who want to go beyond the letter of the law and adhere to its spirit by registering are thrown into a class subject to suspicion and disdain by the leaders of our government. 

Should the LDA be amended to require registration by everyone who is involved in influencing government actions — whether employed by for profit or not for profit clients?  If this were to occur, and if the hysteria about lobbyists were to remain, wouldn’t there still be those would {mosads}continue to find loopholes around registration, not to hide their clients, fees and issues, but to avoid being denied the same basic right to petition their government as the average American enjoys. 

There will always be lobbyists; they are mere advocates for interests. Certainly, not all interests are as popular as others, but shouldn’t unpopular causes have a chance to be heard? Government officials can always ignore what they hear or even refuse to meet with certain industries or interests. That has always been the case anyway. Continuing to rail against lobbyists may be good political fodder in the short term, but in the long run it creates a false sense of corruption in Washington that makes all government officials guilty by association with the bogeyman that they created.

Strengthen disclosure, relax the rhetoric, and loosen the restrictions on mere communications.  Yes, there may be some bad lobbyists just as there are some bad members of Congress, doctors, lawyers and accountants; but, if you want robust disclosure, call a truce on the personal attacks.  And if the administration needs someone to attack to score political points, there’s always the Bush administration or its favorite bête noire — plaintiff lawyers.

Spulak is a King
& Spalding partner in the Government Advocacy and Public Policy
Group. He served as Democratic staff director and general counsel of the
Committee on Rules, and as general counsel to the House.


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