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.
The Senate posts its lobbying reports -- some filed electronically but most handed in on paper and then scanned into an Internet-ready format -- for all the world to see under the "legislation and records" section at www.senate.gov. Researchers are able to peruse the site to gain real insight and knowledge. The House, in contrast, makes reading its documents as difficult as possible. House-deposited reports are not posted on the Internet. To read them, a person must find his way to the basement of the Cannon House Office Building and wrestle with computer terminals there that offer limited search capabilities.
And here's the clincher: Even though the House will require filing over the Internet, it has no plans to put the records online. Its habit of keeping its door largely closed to public inspections will remain entirely unchanged.
That, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), "is absurd."
"Why would [the House] have electronic filing if it didn't put the information online so people could see it?" asked Lofgren, a member of the House Administration Committee. "What you'd want to do is file electronically so that the data is widely searchable."
What's more, the rise of the House system could lead to the fall of the Senate's. Congressional aides figure that almost no one will bother filing online to the Senate when they'll have to put so much time and effort into complying with the House's elaborate procedures. It's more likely that they will print the House form and deliver it on paper to the Senate.
"We knew that [the House's system] pretty much could sink the Senate system," said Gerasimos C. Vans, the deputy House clerk.
Taken from a different vantage -- the lobbyists' -- the House system is much more convoluted than the Senate's and may collapse from its own weight.
The Senate's system is password protected and asks lobbyists to type in codes to complete their filings. The House system has a fancier technology that requires a more foolproof identification called a digital signature, which places the responsibility for verification with a nongovernmental third party.
Lobbyists prefer neither method. At least 85 percent of registered lobbyists have continued to file their reports on paper even though electronic filing has been available in the Senate since 2000 and in the House since 2004.
Those days are over. Soon, the House won't accept paper filings. One result will be a mad rush to file disclosures on paper by year-end as a way to avoid the electronic system.
Yet there are reasons to doubt whether the House's electronic system will ever work. The House technology requires Adobe Reader Version 6.0 software to fill out the disclosure forms. Sadly, the current version of Adobe Reader, 7.0, is unable to deal with the House's electronic reports.
Worse yet, lobbyists can't use Macintosh computers to file electronically to the House.
People familiar with the House program also worry that the heavy volume of documents that will flood in as deadlines approach next year could well crash the largely untested system. Each chamber deals with as many as 49,000 lobbying documents each year.
Lobbyists themselves are balking at going through the rigors of obtaining a digital signature. Many have complained to the American League of Lobbyists about the cost of buying the signature: $35 per individual and $119 per company for a two-year subscription.
Some lobbyists say the payment, though relatively small, amounts to a user fee or tax that discourages a constitutionally protected right: to petition government for redress of grievances. (That's a fairly lofty argument, but, then again, experienced lobbyists will try anything.)
Others complain that they have to provide too much personal information to the vendor of the digital signature and are putting themselves at risk of identity theft. The company must double-check a lobbyist's identity before providing him or her with a digital signature. To get one, the lobbyist must relinquish a home address, a Social Security number and a credit card number.
Lobbyists also dislike that only one company has been authorized by the House to provide the digital signatures, Rockville-based Digital Signature Trust, a subsidiary of Identrus Inc. That seems to some like too much information -- and therefore too much power -- in the hands of a single company.
Lobbyists love to speculate why Ney issued his paperless dictum. A minority suspect that he was trying to sabotage the process. But a larger number believe this: Ney was having his own troubles with lobbyist connections, specifically with Abramoff, and wanted to show he was on the side of the angels.
Ney accepted many favors from Abramoff, including a golf outing to Scotland in 2002, and is under investigation in Florida by federal prosecutors looking into Abramoff's purchase of a cruise line company, according to people familiar with the probe who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. Ney's spokesman denied that the congressman had done anything improper with Abramoff and said Ney didn't change the lobby rules in reaction to Abramoff, either.
House and Senate staffers have been meeting privately to try to harmonize their systems and correct problems. So far, they haven't found a way.
The next set of lobbyist filings is due Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. But if problems persist, lawmakers won't be getting hearts and flowers from their friends on K Street.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be online to discuss the lobbyist registration rules today at noon at www.washingtonpost.com/business.