Washignton Watch: Obama's law of unintended consequences

President’s proposal to ‘require lobbyists to disclose each contact’ may result in treating ‘citizen lobbying’ the same as corporate and labor interests.

obama 311.187 (photo credit: AP)
obama 311.187
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama’s call for tightening restrictions on lobbying could have an unintended impact on Jewish organizations and other nonprofit groups working on behalf of a wide range of public interest causes, including the elderly, the poor, the environment and the hungry.
The proposals in Obama’s State of the Union address to “require lobbyists to disclose each contact” with Congress or the administration on behalf of a client will create an avalanche of paperwork for the small groups that can least afford it. More useful would be more detailed reporting by public officials – and spouses – of their sources of funding and assets.
The president is aiming at paid, professional lobbyists, especially after last month’s Supreme Court ruling lifting restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and unions. But an unintended consequence may be treating “citizen lobbying” by groups such as local Jewish community relations councils the same as corporate and labor interests.
On the surface the president did not call for restricting the activities of unpaid volunteers who engage in grassroots lobbying for nonprofit groups, which is critical for most Jewish charitable organizations. But that could be the result if he succeeds in removing the current exemption from registration for groups where less than one-fifth of the lobbyist’s time is spent lobbying.
Disclosure: I am biased. I’ve spent many years lobbying, mostly for Jewish organizations and causes. They depend on a grassroots network of deeply committed, well-informed citizen lobbyists; many are also campaign contributors, which already requires detailed reporting to the Federal Election Commission.
Lobbying plays an important and positive role in our community and many others, and it thrives in sunshine.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper: “A lot of lobbyists are very helpful in fighting for their folks and a lot of lobbyists work very, very hard.” A congressional veteran told me, “Limiting contact denies decision-makers access to information helpful to them.” There’s one thing Obama said that many lobbyists would agree with: “It’s time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office.”
WITHIN HOURS of leaving meetings between Jewish community groups and lawmakers, I’ve gotten calls from aides soliciting contributions for the boss as though that were the price of admission. Lobbyists are continually inundated with pleas for money. I call it the ka’ching factor; when a lobbyist walks through the door, the politician hears the sound of a cash register. And it makes no difference if you represent the biggest corporations or the smallest community relations councils. (Public financing is a cure, but that’s another topic.)
Obama’s proposal would lump all the high-paid corporate lobbyists with the nonprofit advocates, and they’re not the same. Corporate lobbyists work to enhance the wealth and power of their clients. To be sure, there are some very large, well-heeled nonprofits as well – notably AIPAC, the NRA and AARP – but the ones most adversely affected would be charitable groups with a small number of paid professionals working with unpaid local volunteers who contribute their own money and time to advance causes they believe in.
“We need rethinking about how many hurdles we put in the way of people who are carrying out their right to petition government. These requirements are going to have the greatest impact on those with the least resources,” said a lobbyist for one Jewish nonprofit.
In this era of gotcha politics and 24/7 cable media, it’s easy to imagine a report of lobbyist contacts being used by an incumbent’s opponents to attack him or her as a tool of the special interests. No one will bother reading the details of the meetings, before unleashing the negative sound bites and blog attacks.
Some lawmakers may be hounded into also producing lists of unpaid/unregistered lobbyists, including constituents, they meet, even though there are no plans to require such disclosure, according to a source close to the White House. That could easily inhibit the willingness of lawmakers to meet more rarely even with constituents and discourage participation by citizen lobbyists who fear becoming public targets.
Washington is an industry town where casual contacts between lawmakers and lobbyists are common. A senior congressional staffer told me, “I can’t tell you how many people approach me in the supermarket or at the movies, on social occasions or when I pick my kids up at school. There’s always some shoptalk. Can I no longer speak to these folks, especially some who’ve been my friends for years before we were in our current jobs? Will I have to file a report on every encounter?”
The politics of disclosure could discourage volunteers from working for charitable causes if they fear they’ll be attacked by the incumbent’s political opponents as influence peddlers engaging in questionable activity, which is the way the president made lobbying sound.
The key to the success of public-interest advocacy is a well-informed, motivated grassroots network of citizen lobbyists. Turning them into targets for gotcha politics is unhealthy for our democracy.