Make it easier to know who is lobbying Congress and what they’re lobbying for.
In addition to improving legislative efficiency and accessibility to documents, the Committee also considered reforms that would open other aspects of the legislative process. Interest groups have always played an important role in legislation by uniting like-minded individuals behind political action. The First Amendment explicitly guarantees the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, and lobbyists help facilitate those requests by conveying organizations’ legislative goals to Members of Congress.
Lobbying can also assist in the legislative process by providing policymakers and staff with policy background, legislative assistance, and a sense of stakeholder perspectives on proposals. Faced with limited advancement opportunities and plateauing salaries, the amount of experienced congressional staff in Congress has decreased overtime. This decrease in staff capacity has ultimately affected the relationship between lobbyists and Congress in two ways: one, by creating jobs for experienced congressional staff, and two, by filling a forced informational gap. Faced with decreasing capacity to tackle the immense congressional responsibilities, staff often rely on lobbyists and interest groups to assist with complex policy information and legislative support. Recognizing that this reliance is far from optimal, efforts to deal with many of the capacity issues of Congress are addressed elsewhere in this report.
While lobbying can provide an avenue for the American public to have perspectives heard by policymakers and can contribute helpful information and research to policymakers, it can become problematic when lobbying is conducted in the dark or without regulation. Prior reforms have attempted to limit undue outside influence on Congress. Yet despite these reforms, the lobbying industry has continued to grow at a rate that far outpaces the growth of congressional staff. Figure 1.2 compares the rate of expenditures between lobbying and Congress (staff) since 2000.
Figure 1.2: Lobbying and Congressional Expenditures, Over Time
Member experience echoes this reality. In testimony to the Committee on March 12, 2019, Rep. Bill Pascrell (NJ-9) remarked:
“Our tiny staffs are overwhelmed by the army of corporate lobbyists, roaming our halls and a world growing more socially, economically, and technologically complex at a stunning rate.”
Rep. Bill Pascrell, March 12, 2019
Congress and its constituents are at a disadvantage when it comes to resources, and reforms should work to level the playing field between lobbyists, Congress, and the American people. Currently, efforts to track lobbying activity are made more difficult by a complicated registration process. Legislative changes such as the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, requiring lobbyists to register and file quarterly reports with the Clerk of the U. S. House and Secretary of the U. S. Senate, were a start—but inconsistencies still permeate the registration process. As Committee Member Rep. Mark Pocan remarked in the May 10 hearing:
“I just learned yesterday that there are almost 1,500 lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry in Washington, so that means three per every member… In Wisconsin we have a great website, lobbying.wi.gov, which is put up by the Ethics Commission. I can easily go there right now and see who every lobbyist is, who they work for, what any given company is lobbying on right now.
And I tried that on the Federal site, and because there is a House site and a Senate site and a DOJ site, there is not like one location to find all of this information. And to be perfectly honest, I looked at it, I can't figure out what I am trying to find out… I want to make it something that average person can look up something and see who is really behind something.”
Rep. Mark Pocan, May 10, 2019
The current lobbyist registration process is convoluted—making it difficult for Members of Congress and their constituents to trace who is lobbying whom, and who is impacting legislation. As Rep. Pocan noted, there are several different registration requirements and options for lobbyists. The same person can be registered several times—for example, one can register as a foreign lobbyist or corporate lobbyist, or with the FEC or SEC depending on the client or employer. Likewise, an individual will have two separate registrations for the Senate and the House. Even more frustrating, if a name is spelled incorrectly, or is abbreviated in one location but not the other (Mike vs. Michael), this generates two separate entries.
Filing and finding lobbyist disclosures should be straightforward and simple. Thus, the Committee recommends a Congress-wide unique identifier for every lobbyist, to eliminate inconsistences in the registration and disclosure process. This recommendation is practical and makes good, common-sense. In testimony to the Committee, Mr. Reeves confirmed that the Clerk’s office favored unique identifiers and was open to developing such a system.
Congress may not be able to match the financial resources of the lobbying industry, but it can make it easier to track outside influence. A centralized resource that utilizes unique IDs as lobbyist identifiers is an important first step to increasing transparency in one of the darkest areas of the legislative process. The American public and Members of Congress alike should be able to know exactly who is lobbying their representatives and who is influencing legislation.