Transparency and the Lobby Problem
"The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being."
-- Theodore Roosevelt, New Nationalism speech
Lobbyists and special interests are as natural to politics as apple pie is to America. These are individuals, organizations, and businesses who seek to influence regulation and legislation in their favor. And with campaign finance being as it is, this becomes a simple matter of competing dollars. The lure of campaign contributions by a corporation or the promise of a sweet "non-lobbying" job when a politician leaves office is the temptation of greed that afflicts many a human being. Even as the Supreme Court ruled such action remains protected by the First Amendment, there is a potential solution to this issue, one that does not require the length and painful process of a Constitutional amendment.
Increased transparency and increased competition.
What kind of transparency? I would love to be as transparent as possible, but the paperwork and bureaucratic nightmare could potentially lock down government in inefficiency. I would love for our representatives to update us on every bill they voted for and why. I would love to know what grassroots are spending, what favors are being called in, why contracts are awarded- heck, what contracts are even being offered. These days, the phrase "big data" is all the rage, for better or worse, and our federal government definitely has "big data" in its midst.
Opponents to increased transparency will say such a level of effort takes time and wastes taxpayer money. Constituents already trust them, hence why they got elected. They might also point to the disclosure requirements of the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995; then they might reference the House Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 which further strengthened disclosure requirements and restricted certain types of gifts to Congressional staff along with mandatory disclosure of earmarks in expenditure bills. They will point out that the revolving door of Congress members "retiring" to a life of lobbying in the private sector as similarly been restricted.
What the LDA doesn't do is cover grassroots or grassroot contributions to small, non-profits that push their agenda. It doesn't cover astroturfs- fake grassroot movements backed by large corporations. It doesn't cover "strategic advisors" and consultant roles that allow former Congress members to aide lobbying firms internally while being prevented from acting as the registered lobbyist to Congress themselves. There are also, from what I understand, expenditure reporting requirement variances in the LDA and Internal Revenue Code which leads to lobbyists choosing IRC codes that let them leave out contact with legislative and executive branch members.1
How do we fix that and every other issue that may exist with lobbyist loopholes? From the sound of it, tackling the lobbying problem means tackling free speech and the First Amendment, bringing us right back to the Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United and McCutcheon. Not only that, but Fourth Amendment issues may creep up due to the volume and type of data being asked for. And again, the level of paperwork and reporting necessary brings unneeded overhead to an already inefficient government.
In my opinion, transparency needs to first start with more clear and easily accessible public data on existing expenditures. President Obama championed Open Government and, indeed, there is a lot of information online. From data.gov to agency, department, and committee websites, everything and the kitchen sink is available. And as is the case with all big data, organization that allows us to actually find anything in those massive piles requires time and effort that the vast majority of us don't have. So cleaning up and organizing this data, providing topline details on key pieces of information such as budgets, outlays, contracts bid on, contracts awarded, staff employment, advisors, ethic reports, and more would go a long way.
Next we need to fix the revolving door problem even more. For sure, there is benefit to government employees going to work private sector so outright eliminating such maneuvers serves no one. But we can take some actions to stop undeserved rewarding of ethically dubious behavior. We can eliminate the income-based criteria that says staffers under a certain salary are not barred from such private sector lobbying positions, we can extend the waiting period from one year to three or four years, we can increase penalties in the form of fines and possible imprisonment for such unethical behavior, and most importantly, we can ensure that the overseers of these representative ethics have proper resources to monitor and enforce the rules and laws we trust them to.
Once we have data cleaned up and the revolving door slowed, we next need to ensure that our representatives are actually reading all the bills they're voting on. What are the chances all of them read the latest appropriations bill in it's 1,600+ page glory? Or the 906 pages of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare? I know many people did not. Many a Facebook battle I waged with individuals who claimed Obamacare would cause them or their loved ones to shut down shop over the cost of employee coverage, no matter how many times I told them the Act does not require small business to offer insurance if there are only 5 employees. Why did I know that? Because when I first heard the claim, it sounded so incredibly wrong and silly (why would legislation do something that inane?) and had to see for myself if the bill was that bad. And after many hours wasted reading the draft text posted to govtrack.us, I found it wasn't. But still the misinformation and accusations spread.
Our representatives should've known better. They should have read the bill and then informed the public of the truth behind it. Some members of Congress may have played partisan politics by not clarifying even if they could, and anyone doing just that is as karmicly responsible for the problems our nation faces. Forcing members to read all the bills they vote on holds them accountable; then we must also constantly ask our reps why they voted for or against each bill. In the age of the internet and social media, this should be super easy to do. Representative Justin Amash does a good job of this. I don't agree with his stances all the time, but he is at least communicating with his constituents far more than my reps in Maryland are.
Continuing with the transparency fixes, we need to address astroturfing- when large corporations set up fake grassroot movements. Grassroots are natural and spontaneous uprisings, usually driven by community politics. For example, if your community got together and formed a group dedicated to coloring all sidewalks in your neighborhood hot pink. Astroturfs, on the other hand, are messages bought and paid for by corporations that look like they are originating spontaneously, like if Verizon used your email on their behalf to make a board of public works think you supported them even if you did not. This is bad because astroturfing is really effective, even if it's questionable ethically.2 The FTC's guidelines for disclosure on paid advertising, fake reviews, etc do not go far enough. Much like Congress tried- and failed- to do with disclosure rules in patent reform, disclosure of astroturfing needs to be made known. If I visits a website dedicated to the opposition of climate change, my opinion of it might shift if I'm told that it's sponsored by Big Environmentally Unfriendly Company X that doesn't run clean coal and dumps nuclear waste into rivers.
And finally with transparency, we should put the rules of the STOCK Act of 2012 back in place.3 They were initiated before the 2012 election, then quickly and quietly repealed after the 2012 election. You know something is fishy when an act of transparency is implemented before an election and then thrown away soon thereafter. Such easily accessible data of investment disclosures would fall under the "big data" purview I've already mentioned, giving people the ability to make sure their representatives behave properly.
The last part of this solution involves tackling the problem from another angle entirely: concentrations of wealth. This is not about income inequality, but rather an acknowledgment that large collectives of money tend to influence the world around them. It's the trickle-down effect that people have been referring to for decades... except instead of a trickle-down of wealth, it's a trickle-down of influence.
When you look at groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the Koch brothers or any other entity with wealth and influence, we see them funding many smaller efforts, essentially trickling down their ideology to others in the form of money. From a First Amendment standpoint, again, there is nothing we can or should do about this directly because it's considered free speech and free expression, even if an entity lies to Congress or the American people.
But why would they lie in the first place? That is the key point for this last part and the final solution towards fixing the lobbying problem: increased competition. American capitalism fully at work. When a corporation reaches a certain size from a wealth and/or distribution standpoint, they gain power to buy up or merge with competitors, increasing overall market share and market influence. As more and more of these competitors come together, go away, or fail to get started, the remaining groups and corporations gain too large a market share or too much market influence, resulting in monopolies, duopolies, and oligopolies. It doesn't help that the FTC and Congress seem to believe that a real capitalist competition can and is occurring as long as more than one firm exists in the market sector.
Lack of competition hurts consumers and create those concentrations of wealth in the first place. Logically speaking, when you have fewer voices, you have fewer perspectives on any given issue. Increasing competition amongst companies and organizations increases the number of perspectives and that, America, is what awareness is all about.
By becoming aware of the happenings with lobbyists and special interests groups, by becoming more aware of government actions and the reasoning behind it, by providing the American people with real knowledge, we regain the power in the fight against corruption, influence, and manipulation. When we can't do that, we need to address the individuals at the heart of these situations- namely Congress and the President. I firmly believe that if the ideas I've put forth are implemented in some shape or form, that will go a long way in bringing truth back to our legislative process. And, most importantly, it will go a long way towards creating equality of opportunity through the multitude of perspectives available and the lack of monetary incentive to focus on any single perspective. Strip the money out and, theoretically, one has to vote on principle and for one's constituents, wouldn't you say?
Votes and legislation by the people, for the people, with the people and their Rights foremost in mind. It has to be. And that, America, is what I seek to offer you as a candidate for public office.
- OpenSecrets.org, Influence Inc 2000.
- Yoshida, Kate Shaw, Astroturfing works, and it’s a major challenge to climate change. Also read the full study (behind paywall, ug) from the Journal of Business Ethics for some insight on astroturfing vs grassroots. The distinction and effect is a necessity to be aware of. That this particular study revolves around climate change makes it work, in my opinion, because when it comes to man vs nature, man will always lose in the long run.
- Pear, Robert, Insider Trading Ban for Lawmakers Clears Congress. The STOCK Act would have required members of Congress, aides, and other federal employees making over $119,554/yr to disclose their financial dealings in an online database. The idea here being that an online database makes for easy, public searching to weed out and prevent abuses of insider trading. See also Congress Quietly Repeals Congressional Insider Trading Ban. The end result is that much of the data will still be there, but in paper format not easily searchable, digestible, or even accessible. Congress claims it’s for national security reasons because “hostile nations” would be able to see personal information about top national security officials. The claim is somewhat baseless because "hostile nations" already can access that info by killing a few trees and getting paper copies. Attempts at obfuscation mean little here.