Decision Making, Influence, and the Public’s Right to Know

Lobbying disclosure standards recently released by Access Info Europe and the Sunlight Foundations show how far the US has to go before the public has access to the kinds of information it needs to understand how lobbyists are influencing policy-makers. Access Info Europe’s draft of disclosure standards outlines the information the public needs to get an accurate picture of how outside influence is wielded inside governments. The Sunlight Foundation’s draft of international lobbying disclosure guidelines outlines what constitutes an effective lobbyist registry, what information should be disclosed by lobbyists, what data the public needs, and how this information should be made accessible to the public.   

Although the definitions of the lobbying and lobbyist don’t square precisely across continents, the standards identified by Access Info Europe and the Sunlight Foundation do drive home how little information is available about how influence steers decisions across the branches of US government. In the US, the IRS defines lobbying as “attempts to influence a legislative body through communication with a member or employee of a legislative body, or with a government official who participates in formulating legislation.” But for the purposes of tracking influence and decision-making, the transparency lens needs to be widened beyond the IRS definition. As Sunlight notes in the introduction to the guidelines:

Even when countries do manage to create lobbying laws, many of these attempts are doomed to fail because of inappropriate definitions of who constitutes a lobbyist, what is considered lobbying activity, and who might be a target of lobbying…Some of the definitions fail to cover a significant part of professional lobbyists who make regular contact with politicians, while others miss an entire branch, such as the executive.

Together, the documents map out the requirements for effective lobbying (broadly understood) transparency, from registries to data formatting. They show also what resources should be proactively disclosed to give the public the full view of influence in the US government’s decision-making, whether it includes drafting legislation, awarding government contracts, or shaping policy. Many of Access Info’s standards for proactive dissemination include documents that deepen the public’s understanding of content of lobbying activity, including meeting summaries, documents submitted by interest groups or referred to in decision making meetings, and the documents used as justification for making a decision. Sunlight’s international guidelines are a conversation starter and springboard for activists, providing an overview of best practices internationally and kicking off a valuable discussion about what standards should be across the board.

 Where Should the US Start?

 The United States’ second National Action Plan, which it drafted as a founding member of the Open Government Partnership, lacks commitments on ethics and lobbying disclosure. The omission is surprising given the Administration’s earlier initiatives to limit lobbyist’s ability to enter government service, and its launch of Ethics.gov. The latter is a website that provides the public with access to ethics data, including campaign finance, lobbying, and White House visitor records.  Moreover, the US Civil Society Model Action Plan, shared with the administration last summer, includes ethics disclosure commitments that outline initial steps to which the administration could reasonably achieve in a 2 year timeframe. 

The first model commitment asked that the White House:

Direct agencies to publish additional information on special interest influence. The Administration will direct agencies to regularly and proactively disclose additional information that could shed light on special interest attempts to influence government decision-making (background here).

The commitment would require the administration to post information to Ethics.gov in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format, including but not limited to:

·         Communications with Congress, including spending requests from members of Congress per E. O. 13457;

·         Calendars of Top Agency Officials, including meeting topics and participating personnel;

·         Agency Visitor Logs, for agencies which currently keep logs in an electronic format;

·         Contractor Lobbying Disclosures, known as Form LLL, filed with federal agencies

·         Federal Advisory Committee Information, including information about members (such as any conflict-of-interest waivers) and committee activities (such as meeting agendas, minutes, and transcripts).

Another model commitment recommends that the Lobbying Disclosure Act be amended to specifically identify targets of lobbying efforts in LDA reports, require public reporting of grassroots lobbying expenditures, and make publicly available unique lobbyist identifiers in a downloadable format.

These are meaningful steps the US government should take to begin the process of addressing/more fully meeting the reasoned and valuable standards presented by both the Sunlight Foundation and Access Info Europe. The public needs a full picture of lobbying and its influence on decision making.

In the meantime, the public can rely on the great work of OTG’s partners. At OpenSecrets.org, the Center for Responsive Politics breaks down influence and lobbying spending by categories ranging from specific bills to industries. The Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer tool allows users to track spending by industries, politicians, organizations, and individual donors. Both organizations pair their data analysis with valuable reporting and context. 

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