Lobbying Disclosure Databases: A Users' Guide

Article excerpt

What started as a headline-making political scandal has resulted in a boon for researchers. In 2005 and 2006, the press unraveled and exposed the corrupt dealings of now-infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In 2007, Congress responded by passing a landmark lobbying reform bill requiring greater, timelier disclosure from registered lobbyists.

The new law is the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (Public Law No. 110-81), known by its acronym, HLOGA (pronounced, with a straight face, huh-LO-gah). Thanks to HLOGA, professional researchers and the public alike can tap into more information, updated more frequently, on the individuals and firms hired to influence federal government decision makers. The impact of HLOGA on the Washington influence scene is unclear. What is clear is that we now have unprecedented access to details on some of the players: approximately 12,000 paid lobbyists working on every issue of interest to the American people.

Public disclosure has come to mean availability on the internet, free of charge, for everyone. HLOGA brings lobbying disclosure records into the modern world with a requirement that the House of Representatives-via the Clerk of the House's office-and the Senate-via the Secretary of the Senate's office-each make the filings available online "in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable manner."

While the Senate provided online access to its lobbyist disclosure forms prior to HLOGA's mandate, the House had made them available only to those who personally visited their records center in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building in the U.S. Capitol complex. HLOGA also requires the Justice Department to make the FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) database "available to the public over the Internet, without a fee or other access charge, in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable manner ... ." Before 2007, researchers had to go to a Department of Justice reading room in Washington, D.C., during limited hours to find and pay for copies of filings. Physical visits hardly equate to public disclosure in an online age.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Congress has struggled in the past with the best way to require the disclosure of lobbying activities. In 1938, legislators enacted FARA in an attempt to reveal and discourage Nazi propaganda efforts. Congress amended FARA in 1966 to include political and lobbying activities performed on behalf of foreign governments and business interests. All such "foreign agents" were required to register with the Justice Department. In 1998, U.S. law was amended again to allow those representing foreign business interests the option of registering with Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the other major disclosure statute.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) became law in 1995. LDA updated the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946, which had required paid lobbyists to register with Congress and provide quarterly reports on their activities. Vague legislative language, weak enforcement, and legal challenges hampered the effectiveness of the 1946 law. LDA provided a clearer description of who was required to register, switched reporting to a semiannual schedule, and subjected lobbyists to civil monetary penalties of up to $50,000 for noncompliance.

The 2007 HLOGA amends the Lobbying Disclosure Act, bringing a return to quarterly filing, increasing civil penalties for noncompliance from $50,000 to $200,000, and establishing criminal penalties of up to 5 years in prison for those who "knowingly and corruptly" fail to comply.

FARA, LDA, and HLOGA all include provisions beyond lobbyist registration. HLOGA, for example, also addresses rules for campaign funds, gifts and travel, and postgovernment employment in lobbying firms (the "revolving door" phenomenon). For a more complete picture of the rules, consult the Congressional Research Service report number RL34166, "Lobbying Law and Ethics Rules Changes in the 110th Congress," available from Open CRS (www. …