That Washington is corrupted by special interests and lobbyists is perhaps the most common critique of the federal government. Poll after poll reveals a public convinced that lobbyists are an unethical, destructive influence. Accordingly, most lobbying reform proposals take a strong moralizing tone. “Drain the swamp” was Nancy Pelosi’s rallying cry in 2006, backed by a promise to, on day one, “break the link between lobbyists and legislation.” President Obama, too, spent his campaign bashing special interests (as did John McCain). Obama also made a symbolic point of enacting new lobbying rules for his administration on day one.
Such an approach assumes that lobbyists are inherently corrupting, possessing an awesome power — through campaign contributions, personal connections, or perhaps sheer force of will — to automatically compel legislative outcomes. It therefore leaves only one option: Keep them as far away from the political process as conceivable.
This kind of thinking fails to appreciate that lobbyists justifiably derive substantial influence not from some nefarious quid pro quo (or from some sinister old boys’ network handshake), but from their ability to become an essential part of the policymaking process by providing useful and timely information and expertise to understaffed, underexperienced and overworked congressional offices.
Contrary to the popular opinion of smoke-filled rooms and steak dinners, Washington lobbyists primarily spend their days in the rather banal work of keeping very close tabs on everything happening in government, looking for new opportunities to “educate” relevant staff on their clients’ particular worldview and be a “helpful” resource on issues that might impact their clients.
This is not, in itself, necessarily problematic. But two aspects of the situation are troubling.
First, representation is extremely one-sided. Roughly three-quarters of all money spent on lobbying is spent on behalf of businesses. If lobbying is a contest of who has the resources to blanket and bird-dog Capitol Hill with arguments and information on any given issue, it’s just not a fair fight.
Second, the process is not adequately transparent. The public, the media and even competing advocates are hard-pressed to know which lobbyists are meeting with whom and what they are arguing for and why.
And without transparency, accountability suffers.
Put yourself in the role of a House legislative director for a moment. On average, you have been in your position for little more than three years, and in the House for just under six years. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, there’s a decent chance (27 percent) you are under 30 years old, and a high likelihood (87 percent chance) you are under 40. There’s a 55 percent chance you have no more than a bachelor’s degree, and only a 16 percent chance you have a law degree. You have the help of two or three legislative aides. They will be, on average, younger (most are in their 20s), slightly more green (there’s an 80 percent chance a legislative aide will have less than three years’ experience), and be responsible for covering maybe a dozen issues. The situation in the Senate is only slightly better.
In a frenetic, high-turnover environment where congressional staff are always playing a game of intellectual catch-up, lobbyists are there to fill in the gaps.
Moreover, the issues are increasingly complex: The Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill was 2,300 pages and covered incredibly complicated intricacies of the domestic and global financial system; the Affordable Care Act was 2,400 pages and dealt with the bizarre complexities of the healthcare system. Both were full of subsection after subsection of arcane, technical details, and it seems unlikely that any staffer could master much of the bill without relying on outside help.
All of is not necessarily a problem. But it needs to be transparent in a way that enables proper balance and accountability.
Under current rules, lobbyists now file quarterly reports listing their clients, issues, institutional targets (e.g., Senate, House, Department of Transportation) and compensation. All campaign contributions directly to candidates are also disclosed. In many respects, the United States has the best lobbying-disclosure regime in the world. But it could be better.
The problem is that making information publicly available does not automatically make information useful, as Archon Fung, Mary Graham and David Weil have argued convincingly in an excellent book on transparency, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency. For transparency policy to be effective, they found, the information must be both easy to understand and easy to utilize. Users must be able to register their choices clearly, and disclosers must have the ability and incentive to respond meaningfully.
Right now, for all its wonders, the current disclosure system doesn’t do a very good job of that. All we know is there is a lot of money and that it is disproportionately coming from business interests. And while some terrific websites have made existing information more accessible, searchable and combinable (most notably, OpenSecrets.org, Maplight.org and FirstStreet), knowing the rough how much and even a bit of the when is only part of the equation. Citizens and watchdogs also need to know who is advocating for what, and why and how – and all in a timely enough fashion that they can meaningfully respond.
My proposal is simple. The federal government should sanction and support a website where congressional staff, the media and the public could see who is advocating for what, what their arguments are, and what information they are basing those arguments on. Such a website would provide a forum for constituents, lobbyists, government agencies and other interested advocates to make their positions known and engage in transparent debate. Out of that debate, better public policy can emerge.
If it became the standard conduit for advocacy, such a central clearinghouse would also do much to level the playing field. Rather than hire a team of high-priced lobbyists to go around the Hill meeting with staffers, interested parties would need only make their cases on a Web page.
Say you wanted weigh in on H.R.2018 (The Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011), which would limit EPA powers to regulate clean water. You could simply go to the site and post your opinion for any congressional office — or journalist, or citizen, or anybody else — to see. Depending on your status — advocacy group, constituent or even government agency — your opinion would be aggregated in a different way (to make it easy for users to see what different communities are thinking.)
I’ve laid out more detailed plans for how such a site would operate in a recent Brookings Institution paper. I envision this site as an add-on to the existing Library of Congress THOMAS website, which puts all legislation online. The add-on would be called “JAMES,” in honor of James Madison and his vision of a pluralistic democracy. (The innovative folks at the website Popvox.com have also developed a very similar model that is already up and running.)
Certainly, there are obstacles to this making a difference. The most significant is getting lobbyists and congressional offices to adopt this as the standard. Ideally, a few pioneering offices would make it be known to constituents and lobbyists that they will only entertain communications that are publicly transparent and posted on the “JAMES” website, and once the benefits are apparent, others will follow suit.
But however it ultimately winds up working, it’s clear we need a new paradigm for lobbying reform. Rather than sermonize about special interests running Washington, we ought to accept that Washington lobbying is an inevitable byproduct of the fact that our modern federal government makes decisions that impact a remarkable array of interests, and that the complexities and complications of 21st century governance require diffuse and specialized knowledge. Rather than try to extinguish or circumscribe attempts to influence public policy, I say let’s have more of them. Let’s make lobbying maximally accessible and accountable.