Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Lobbying reform – another approach

COMMENTARY | February 04, 2006

The current disclosure act, dating to 1995, is designed to hide, not expose lobbying activity. It exempts many individuals and organizations. For starters, Martin Lobel writes, lobbying reform must disclose ‘who is doing what to whom.’

By Martin Lobel

I just re-read a law review article on campaign finance reform that I wrote in 1966. The problems were the same as now, even though the laws have changed. The lesson, I think, is that while the laws governing lobbying and campaign financing can and should be reformed, the real solution is to eliminate the justification for a bumper sticker I recently saw on a car: “Invest in America; Buy a Congressman.”

Given the current state of affairs on the Hill, it is irrational for businessmen not to try to buy a tax subsidy or an earmarked appropriation because the rate of return from a successful effort far exceeds what they can get in the market place.

The current lobbying act—the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995—is really designed to hide, not expose, lobbying activity. It exempts many lobbyists, most grass-roots efforts and organizations designed to influence legislation. It needs to be changed to reveal, on a real time basis, who is doing what for whom. Complete lobbying reports need to be put on the web within one week of any activity. If law firms can require their lawyers to submit their time sheets electronically at least weekly, why can’t they do the same for their lobbying activity? And, for non lawyers, relatively inexpensive computer programs exist to do the same. The programs should allow interested parties such as the press to slice and dice the data to reveal hidden activity. To paraphrase Justice Brandeis, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Newt Gingrich’s proposal to require all fund raising to be held in a House member’s district or Senator’s state would stop the current whirlwind of fund raising receptions in D.C. and would have the advantage of exposing such activity to the local press’ scrutiny. It would also free up a lot of time for House members and Senators who now are expected to attend several fund raisers almost every night.

The most important, but most difficult, reform to eliminate the corruptive influence of money would be to eliminate the incentives people have to corrupt Congress. For example, if Congress would enforce its own rules and prevent additions to conference reports that were not in either the Senate or House bills or prohibit legislation or amendments to be introduced without adequate time for Members to consider them, that would be a big step forward.

I would also require the sponsor and beneficiary of each provision to be identified along with the cost of it. This requirement is particularly important for tax subsidies that tend to remain long after any rational basis existed for them. Of course, a more dramatic and effective solution would be to eliminate business tax laws entirely and require businesses to pay taxes on the profits they report under oath to the SEC or, if they were small businesses, according to what is known as GAAP, or “generally accepted accounting principles.” They are set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which is under the SEC’s supervision. That would eliminate most of the pressure for tax subsidies, simplify the law and eliminate one of the most corrosive aspects of lobbying.

In short, if we are to have effective lobbying reform, we must correct not only the lobbying law, we need to eliminate the reasons why lobbying has become so expensive and corrosive.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.