Douglas G. Pinkham isn't what you'd call a bomb thrower. He's president of the Public Affairs Council, a largely business-sponsored group that advises companies on how to deal with government.
Yet Pinkham is scathing the laws that regulate contact between outsiders and the federal government. Some of the rules "are pretty slippery" and don't pass "the laugh test," he said. What's needed, he contended, is greater candor and clarity.
As Pinkham's example illustrates, do-gooders and constant complainers aren't the only people calling for repair of lobbying disclosure. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the system for disclosure knows that it doesn't work.
The proof is in newspaper headlines. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has been criticized for taking three trips abroad (to Russia, Britain and South Korea) that were paid for indirectly by lobbyists. His excuse: He didn't know where the money came from.
That itself is a compelling argument for ending concealment.
The time might be perfect for change. Congress is about to consider strengthening campaign-finance laws by shrinking the loophole that allowed huge presidential-election-year spending by independent groups called 527s. Lawmakers should take the opportunity to fix lobbying laws, too.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research group, made the case eloquently in a recent study. Since 1998, it reported, the amount spent annually on direct lobbying of Congress and the executive branch has doubled to $3 billion, roughly twice the amount spent by candidates seeking federal office.
At the same time, nearly nine times as many people administer campaign finance laws than oversee lobbying disclosures. And the folks who watch over lobbying, though diligent and hardworking, are hamstrung because they can neither audit nor investigate the many errors and omissions they find.
Oversight of lobbying is so lax, the center said, that 19 percent of the 183,000 lobbying reports required to be filed since 1998 were late, and many weren't filed at all. Making matters worse, the U.S. attorney's office has investigated relatively few potential violations and has kept any settlements secret -- a procedure that lobbying expert Kenneth A. Gross of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP called "very surprising."
Congress hasn't been eager to alter this pitiful arrangement. Lawmakers' attitude has been "the less said, the better," and who could blame them? Their nastiest secret these days is that a large percentage of them each year leave their jobs -- voluntarily or otherwise -- and become professional lobbyists. The Center for Public Integrity's database shows that 250 former members of Congress and more than 2,000 former senior government officials have registered to lobby.
"It's like an extra pension plan for members of Congress," said Roberta Baskin, the center's executive director. "When they get out they can work as lobbyists. Why would they crack down?"
There are plenty of excellent reasons. Here's the simplest: Voters deserve to know who is trying to manipulate the laws they live by, and too often they don't.
More and more lately, what gets done -- or is blocked -- is the product of who is retained to advance a cause. The balance of power in Washington is shifting away from lawmakers and executive-branch decision-makers and toward the lobbyists who provide most of their information, their election-year cash and their grass-roots support back home.
Not much can be done to reverse that trend. The sad history of so-called reform movements demonstrates that high-minded hopes usually give way to unintended consequences.
But, as Pinkham said, "more disclosure is better than less." And if lobbyist-related scandals continue to rake Congress, lawmakers would be well advised to ready a plan that could deflect their constituents' rising anger.
Democratic Reps. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts are devising a comprehensive proposal and plan to announce it as soon as this week.
What follows are some long-chewed-over ways that experts have suggested to improve lobbying laws. The list isn't Pinkham's or the congressmen's. It's mine, culled from conversations with veterans of the scene.
Require lobbyists to say who they've lobbied and about what. Believe it or not, only representatives of foreign countries have to detail their lobbying contacts. Domestic advocates can get away with saying little more than who lobbies on what general issues and how much they're paid. They don't have to say with whom they meet or what legislative matters they discuss. It's time they were required to do both (with some specificity) and to list how much in campaign donations they funnel to the officials (or to the committees) they speak to.
Expand the definition of lobbying to include "grass-roots" activities. Direct lobbyist-to-lawmaker contacts and efforts to support them are covered pretty thoroughly under current laws, but that's only a small part of lobbying these days. Recruiting citizen-advocates from back home, creating and running commercials, soliciting the writing of speeches and op-ed articles, and paying organizations, such as think tanks, to promote legislative outcomes are also lobbying in every sense of the word. They should finally be considered lobbying in the legal sense and no longer be kept from the public.
Demand more frequent and more complete disclosures. Lobbying reports are due every six months. In the Internet age, that's ridiculously infrequent. In addition, most lobbying reports are still conveyed on paper and to different systems maintained separately by the House and Senate. Congress should require electronic filing at least quarterly to a central location. Real enforcement powers and a bigger budget should be granted to overseers in an independent agency such as the Government Accountability Office or the Federal Election Commission.
Lengthen the time former government officials must wait before lobbying. Lawmakers have to wait a year before they can return to Capitol Hill to lobby their former colleagues. That isn't long enough. Revolving-door politics taints policymaking and increases voter cynicism. The cooling-off period should be extended to two years to discourage the practice that Pinkham calls slippery -- former lawmakers turned lobbyists giving "strategic advice" to clients while they wait for their brief year of isolation to pass.
Curtail fundraising by professional lobbyists. One of Washington's most unseemly customs is for people and organizations that have direct interest in legislation to raise money for the lawmakers who write that legislation. That will never be stopped entirely. But a few states make a stab at limiting it by barring registered lobbyists from contributing to candidates for elective office. That should be extended to the federal level and expanded to also prevent them from raising money for candidates.
I don't imagine that many of those ideas will be welcomed either by lawmakers or by lobbyists. But a few of them might soon be needed to restore public trust.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him at email@example.com.