By DANA LIEBELSON
Publishing lobbying activity online would promote competition and a vibrant democratic process, according to a paper released last month by two researchers at the Academic Center of Law and Business, an international institute of higher education located in Israel.
In the paper, authors Moshe Cohen-Eliya and Yoav Hammer outline a proposal to expand the scope of transparency requirements in U.S. law, requiring lobbyists to publish online all written materials transmitted to politicians and to list all areas of lobbying activity.
POGO interviewed one of the authors about improving transparency in the lobbying process, the problems with the “revolving door” phenomenon, and why they believe their proposal would serve the public interest better than the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
POGO has long advocated for increased lobbying transparency. While we don’t take a particular position on the authors’ proposal, we thought it’d be worth highlighting the issue to spark discussion, especially considering all the money pouring into politics and contracting. Find the interview below the jump.
POGO: Why do you think it's important to have more transparency in the lobbying process?
Moshe Cohen-Eliya: The vast majority of lobbying activities takes place in narrowly defined niches with no involvement of the public and very limited competition. This state of affairs constitutes a democratic failure, since it is exactly in these niches, far from the public eye, that rent-seeking lobbying succeeds.
When organizations fear public opinion, they engage in inside lobbying—lobbying that addresses representatives and administrators—or make donations to election campaigns, all of which are methods whose objective is to influence decisions while circumventing public opinion. Groups with economic-gain motives tend to use inside lobbying more than others. We believe that an expansion of contemporary transparency requirements can mitigate the lack of competition in niche lobbying.
POGO: How does increasing transparency actually promote more competitive lobbying?
MCE: The current transparency policies do very little to promote competitive lobbying. For pluralists who view democracy as an arena in which special interest groups struggle to promote their interests, the challenge is to ensure that such competition and rivalry actually take place.
Research suggests that a major obstacle in creating competitive lobbying is the high information costs that groups have to incur when monitoring the lobbying activities of their competitors. One way to reduce these costs is by requiring lobbyists to continuously publish online all written materials that they submit to lawmakers, and to report all lobbying activity in real time. Ongoing updates could increase the creation of rivalry among lobbyists and reduce the risks of uninformed decision-making. The loophole, of course, lies in the possibility that lobbyists may prefer to informally disseminate information to lawmakers over dinner or in Congress's corridors.
POGO: Why do you think the Lobbying Disclosure Act isn’t as effective as it could be?
MCE: The Lobbying Disclosure Act sets registration, identification, and disclosure requirements. It seems that the core purpose of these transparency policies is to shame and sanction those politicians who cooperate with the lobbyists. But these transparency policies do very little to promote competitive lobbying, which constitutes an important mechanism for preventing rent-seeking and for ensuring a more informed power struggle among special interest groups.
POGO: Why do you consider the "revolving door" phenomenon a failure of the democratic process?
MCE: In the 1970s, only 3 percent of congressmen became lobbyists upon their retirement from Congress. In the 1990s this number jumped dramatically, to 22 percent. A more recent study reveals that 43 percent of lawmakers who left Congress between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. The shift into what may be termed "a business model" of the political career raises some serious agency concerns, particularly that Members of Congress and bureaucrats cooperate with lobbyists because of personal financial interests (e.g., earning a high paying position in a lobbying firm at the end of the term of public service)
POGO: Is there a solution to this model?
MCE: Firstly, we should set a long cooling-off period. In Canada, for example, the "cooling-off period" for bureaucrats and ministers is five years. In the U.S., the period has recently been extended to two years, despite strong opposition by many Members of Congress. The second solution addresses the source of another problem: the growing dependence of congressmen on campaign contributions. Thus, some advocate public funding for political campaigns and allowing only small-dollar donations, measures that would reduce politicians' dependence on lobbyists.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.