April 11, 2012

Lobbyists: Unregistered Influence Peddlers Like Newt Gingrich And Tom Daschle Give Us A Bad Name

It’s not hard to understand what lobbyists do: They influence lawmakers on policy that’s important to their (often corporate) clients and employers, in many cases while they or their clients are providing campaign contributions and other benefits to the same lawmakers. But the legal definition of a lobbyist is complicated and leaves out many of those who do a lot of the influence-peddling in Washington.

Now, the official trade group for lobbying professionals, the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), wants to change that. In fact, it wants to make lobbying laws stricter.

Politico reports:

The board voted on Monday on new recommendations that lower the threshold for when someone should register as a lobbyist and they urge lobbyists to register sooner.

The rules also suggest ending a disclosure exemption for local governments and religious groups. And they would require federal employees who lobby Congress to register…

The Lobbying Disclosure Act currently outlines three main criteria requiring a person to register as a lobbyist. First, that person must have two or more contacts with a lawmaker, staffer, or administration official on behalf of a client. Second, at least 20 percent of the time spent working for that client must be made up of “lobbying activities” like research and contact with officials. Third, the person must earn at least $3,000 from the client in a quarter.

The new proposal goes further than the current law:

Under ALL’s recommendations, any independent lobbyist paid to make at least one contact with an official covered by current lobbying laws would have to register—regardless of how much time they spend lobbying. In-house lobbyists would have slightly more leeway. They would register if they spend more than 10 percent of their time lobbying and they have made at least one contact with a covered official.

ALA’s President Howard Marlowe told reporters that the proposed changes are intended to increase transparency and accountability. Many lobbyists-in-practice avoid registering because of stigma and restrictions placed on lobbyists. “We’re lobbyists. This is a lobbying effort on our part,” Marlowe said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”

He cited President Obama’s supposedly tougher rules on lobbyists (that we previously criticized here) as a “disincentive to register.”

Marlowe has previously blamed the “Gingrich loophole” for corruption in his profession. Reuters reports:

“[The ALL] is in part targeting people like Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and former Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, who make livings based on their time in Congress but who call themselves consultants or policy advisers, said president Howard Marlowe. … The move by the lobbyists’ league is part of an effort to reverse the decline in their image.”

For lobbyists, this might be all about image. But when it comes to peddling democracy, any increase in transparency is a good call.