Study Reveals the Focus on Lobbyists Could be Flawed

11/10/2009

According to a study conducted by OMB Watch and the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), 1,418 federally registered lobbyists "deregistered" with Congress in the second quarter of 2009 (between April and June). This is a considerably higher rate than that seen in the average reporting period, when a few hundred lobbyists terminate their active status. The groups cautioned that this finding does not necessarily mean that the Obama administration's policies on lobbyists are leading to fewer outside influences on government policy, or that those policies are creating more transparency.

The groups' joint press release states, "This drop occurred shortly after President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13490, which created new restrictions on former lobbyists appointed to the executive branch." Lobbyists terminate their registrations for a variety of reasons, meaning that the data does not provide enough context to provide a direct correlation to the executive order, which Obama issued in January.

The president promised during his campaign to crack down on the influence of lobbyists in his administration. He followed through with his promise on his first day in office with the executive order, which, among other things, limits hiring federal lobbyists who have lobbied on a particular matter or specific agency during the previous two years. Some, however, have criticized the order as artificially reducing influence peddling. Instead, they argue that the order has had a perverse effect by forcing lobbyists to deregister and do their work under a different name.

To test the hypothesis that lobbyists were deregistering, OMB Watch and CRP conducted their analysis. Lee Mason, OMB Watch Director of Nonprofit Speech Rights, reiterated that the data are difficult to interpret but also emphasized that the timing of the increase in terminations needs to be more carefully considered. "While we can’t draw a direct link between the president's executive order and the increased pace of terminations during the second quarter of 2009,” he said, “we can say that they came at a most controversial time."

The study found that the number of terminations is higher than the number of new registrations. "All told, there have been 18,315 lobbyist termination reports filed since January 2008. Meanwhile, only 15,310 lobbyists reactivated their registrations after previously filing termination reports. This leaves a total of 3,005 lobbyists who have effectively 'de-registered,' of which more than half (1,691) have come since April 2009," according to the group's press release.

As part of their study, the groups also flagged a problem with terminology that often leads to confusion and decreases lobbying transparency. The term "deregistration" is often used in the media and by those in the lobbying community; however, on the disclosure forms of the Senate and the House, there is no such term.

OMB Watch and CRP determined that the most accurate way to gauge the number of active lobbyists terminating their registrations requires tracking lobbyists' names listed on line 23 of the Lobbying Disclosure Act's (LDA) form (LD2, which tracks lobbying activity on behalf of a client) and standardizing the data for each individual lobbyist. "With no unique identifier per individual lobbyist and with no 'deregistration' field, verifying and enforcing compliance with the rules is made much more difficult," the groups noted.

The organizations also reinforced the view that the requirements for reporting lobbyist information are in desperate need of improvement. As asserted in the groups' press release, the shortcomings of the current disclosure system are leading to real-world problems. According to OMB Watch and CRP, "[T]housands of lobbyists who appear to have left their line of work may not have actually done so. At the federal level, many people working in the lobbying industry are not registered lobbyists, instead adopting titles such as 'senior advisor' or other executive monikers, thereby avoiding federal disclosure requirements under the Lobbying Disclosure Act."

Additional information disclosure that would allow the public to clearly identify registrations would include details such as: who is registering, who a lobbyist's client is, and when a lobbyist has truly ended his or her lobbying activities. In hopes of achieving greater lobbying disclosure and transparency, the study made three recommendations:

  • Assign a unique identification number to each federally registered lobbyist
  • Add a field for "deregistering" as a lobbyist
  • Amend the LDA to codify these changes

The administration's January policy – as well subsequent limits on Recovery Act and Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) lobbying and limits on lobbyists on federal advisory committees – raises an important question for some: do the administration’s limits on lobbyists truly address potential corruption and influence in our government?

According to transparency and nonprofit speech rights advocates, limiting communications with government officials and limiting executive branch hiring has not had the desired affect of full transparency. In the meantime, lobbyists can easily maneuver around the current restrictions. Their work can be managed in a way to avoid meeting the threshold required to register under the LDA, but as noted earlier, they can continue to do similar work. As a consequence, what may be occurring is that the same level of money and influence, from the same big-moneyed special interests, is reaching decision makers through different, shadier channels while an illusion of transparency overlays reality.

Indeed, according to observers, despite efforts to limit lobbyists' abuses and put the public interest first, the role of special interests remains. For example, those who won Recovery Act contracts also spent millions lobbying the government. The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board recently completed the release of the first round of quarterly disclosure reports by Recovery Act recipients. These reports appear to indicate that those who engaged in heavy lobbying also received the largest Recovery Act contracts. Phil Mattera of Good Jobs First details some specifics at the Dirt Diggers Digest.

In addition, advocates and observers say that the role of money in the entire public policy process must be considered as part of the special interest influence picture. As a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Joel Jankowsky remarks, "This administration's treatment of lobbyists has only decreased openness in the policy-making system. [. . .] If the administration truly wants to address its stated concerns about the influence of special interests, it should focus on what the public actually cares about: the influence of money on the policy-making process."