Obama Seeks More Lobbyist Disclosure

by Amanda Adams*, 1/28/2010

During President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, he said he came to Washington "to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; to give our people the government they deserve. [. . .] That's why we've excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs, or seats on federal boards and commissions." However, as a group of nonprofits have recently noted, in the process of attempting to limit the influence of special interests, the administration has successfully "[excluded] the voices of citizen- and community-based organizations."

A coalition of thirteen nonprofit organizations, including OMB Watch, sent President Obama a letter requesting changes in the executive order issued last year restricting lobbyists from jobs in the administration. The letter details the current ban as well-intended, but imperfect. While the order excludes registered lobbyists that work for nonprofits for example, "the vast majority of 'special interest' insiders like corporate executives and their public relations and legal advisors" continue to exercise the same influence as before.

The Washington Post highlights an example; "Caroline Smith Dewaal, the director of food safety at Center for Science in the Public Interest, a lawyer and nationally known food safety expert who has spent 20 years working on policy and trade issues. But Dewaal's nomination came to a halt in August because she was a registered lobbyist, which violated the administration's policy against hiring lobbyists."

The letter stated, "Using it [the Lobbying Disclosure Act] to restrict public service has the perverse result of decreasing transparency and driving real influence peddlers into the shadows and out of the sunlight. By using the LDA, the Ethics Order is broadly under-inclusive for its purposes." Further, the Citizens United v. FEC decision, "has increased the urgency of such actions."

"The solution should focus on issues like campaign finance reform and the disproportionate influence that large financial interests have over our nation's politics and public policies."

Despite, the unintended consequences of the policies instituted last year, Obama should be applauded for discussing during the State of the Union his plan to expand lobbyist transparency. Yet, the focus should not remain solely on federally registered lobbyists.

Obama announced, "It's time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my administration or with Congress." He also put forth a proposal to limit how much lobbyists can contribute to candidates for federal office. "It's time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office." Such changes must be crafted so that many can not simply steer clear of federal disclosure requirements.

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