Lobbyists Tangled in a Paperless Pursuit

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, October 31, 2005

Lobbying disclosure, at least as practiced, is a near contradiction in terms. Lobbyists rarely need to file documents on their activities -- only twice a year -- and reveal nothing beyond who pays them, how much and for what general purpose.

That's why so many people cheered when, out of the blue, the House of Representatives decided to make lobbyists file disclosure reports electronically. Do-gooders dreamed of greater access to information about Washington's secret society. And high-priced advocates looked forward to finding out faster what their competitors were charging.

But none of that has come to pass. In fact, this seemingly sensible and long-overdue reform has sparked one of the nastiest and most counterproductive mess-ups on K Street.

In late June, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) -- lately best known as a friend of embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- directed the clerk of the House to require all lobbyists to file disclosures over the Internet.

The clerk dutifully instructed the city's roughly 35,000 lobbyists to do so starting Jan. 1, even though it's doubtful that a single member of Congress -- even one who chairs the Committee on House Administration -- actually has the authority to demand anything so sweeping on his own.

In 2001, Ney managed to compel the House cafeterias to change the name of french fries to freedom fries to protest France's reluctance to back the United States in its war against terrorism. But that's a lot different than forcing every lobbyist in town to alter his or her professional behavior.

Nonetheless, the directive was given and followed. The rest has been a disaster.

Ney assured his fellow lawmakers in a letter that House staffers would be able to process lobbying reports more efficiently if they were filed online. A spokesman for Ney added that the system would allow for "more accountability" by lobbyists to the public.

Lobbyists don't see things the same way. The new process looks like it will make filing more cumbersome, complicated and expensive. The public won't get more information than it has already and, possibly, could get even less.

"It's been a nightmare," said Peggy Houlihan, a lobbyist who attended a contentious briefing on the new system in the chandeliered hearing room of the Administration Committee last week.

One problem is that the House and the Senate have entirely different and incompatible systems. Lobbyists must file separately with each chamber.

But because of Ney's decision, there's a strong chance that the House's system, which is far less accessible to the public, could trump the Senate's and leave lobby watchers in the lurch.

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