More information needs to be publicly available about lobbyists and lobbying activities.
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Another legislative session is over and it’s time for assessing the outcomes. For the most part, it’s pretty straightforward. The rather robust legislative website makes it much easier than it used to be to find information about what passed and how.
This is a feast of useful data for anyone wanting to track an issue or a particular bill from start to finish. Each measure is listed along with the legislator who was its primary introducer, as well as others who signed on to the measure.
Want more? Each measure’s status page provides the details, including a step-by-step chronology of its movement through the legislature with records of all votes. There are quick links to each version of the bill, and to committee reports spelling out what the measure was intended to do, how it was amended, if at all, and what testimony was received, pro and con. There are also links to the actual testimony, which used to require a trip to the State Archives to check for copies that happened to have been saved.
So you know what legislator introduced the bill, how each legislator voted on the measure in committee or on the floor, who appeared at public hearings to testify, and how each amendment along the way was justified.
Then I realized this formal legislative history is only part of the story, because a key element is missing — the lobbyists who remain largely invisible, ghosts who manage to avoid leaving any fingerprints for the public to find.
The lobbyists who work the hallways and offices of the State Capitol on behalf of their clients’ special interests are rarely spotted in the official records that make up the legislative history of a bill or resolution, despite the fact that insiders can tie particular bills to specific lobbyists.
“That’s so-and-so’s bill,” you’ll often hear. And to those in the know, that says a lot about the role of lobbyists.
I’m not referring to the citizen lobbyists who speak out on issues for their community organizations, or join with others to make their voices heard on issues of common interest. I’m talking about the relatively small corps of professional lobbyists who, by virtue of experience, expertise, longevity and personality, are able to make a living influencing the outcome of the legislative process.
Several hundred organizations, including local and mainland corporations, unions, business and professional associations, law firms and nonprofit advocacy groups were represented by registered lobbyists this year, and they reported spending about $1 million on lobbying during the first two months of the 2014 session alone.
Some lobbyists represent a single client or a small number of clients. A handful of lobbyists represent dozens of clients, and their reach is substantial.
Lobbyists often write the bills that are then introduced by legislators. They stand by as resources to answer questions, provide background research and data, and work out problems. They show their support and appreciation for the legislators they rely on by showing up at fundraisers, sometimes even organizing the fundraising events which will fuel future political campaigns.
Professional lobbyists develop their own networks over the years, using local traditions of generosity and gift-giving to grow personal relationships with legislators and key staff members. And they work hard during the session, matching legislators’ long hours with their own. Successful lobbyists become part of the insiders club by paying their dues and surviving the same rites of passage as legislators and staff do, win or lose on particular issues in a given year.
Perhaps you can tell that I’m more than a little ambivalent about this level of lobbying. I appreciate the skills of talented and experienced professionals who know all the ins and outs of the legislative process, and become key players in the game of politics. On the other hand, the degree of behind-the-scenes, insider access and influence they achieve can be seen as an unfair political advantage for the special interests with the resources to hire them.
From the public’s perspective, it’s more of the haves vs. have nots. So it’s no surprise that lobbyists engender resentment of people who see the value of their own votes diminished by unlimited political spending by the rich during campaign season, and then see their influence as constituents undermined by the behind-the-scenes leverage of the lobbyist elite.
One approach to the problem is to pursue more transparency in lobbying by strengthening laws regarding lobbyist registration and disclosure.
At the federal level, the Sunlight Foundation is promoting legislation that would provide more and more timely information about the power players behind the scenes in Congress.
The foundation’s proposal would require lobbyists to disclose the names of elected officials and staff they have direct contact with, along with the issues discussed. It seeks disclosure when a lobbyist supplies the language of a draft bill. It would remove loopholes that create ambiguity in lobbyist registration requirements.
Sunlight also calls for more detailed reporting by lobbyists or lobbying firms that fund “grassroots” lobbying, so called “astroturf” activity, where the public is asked to urge public officials to take specific actions.
In the area of campaign fundraising, the Sunlight Foundation proposes that lobbyists be required to report campaign contributions within 72 hours, including any contributions they solicit from others.
Hawaii’s lobbying laws also need substantial revamping, but few proposals to toughen lobbyist restrictions and disclosures have gone anywhere in recent years.
A new report based on discussions of an independent study group convened by consultant Peter Adler to look more closely at the issue of lobbyist regulation has just been released.
The study group had wide-reaching discussions and debates about lobbying, and while there were any areas of disagreement, the report proposes several potential directions to explore. These include more frequent disclosure reports during the annual legislative session by lobbyists and organizations that employ lobbyists, disclosure of business or financial relations between lobbyists and legislators, disclosure of the appointment calendars of legislators, and other moves towards increased transparency.
I was fortunate to participate in the study group, which also included several well-known lobbyists, a union official, academics, current and former journalists, and others. The group’s report will hopefully serve as a springboard for the Hawaii State Ethics Commission to launch a broad review of lobbyist regulation. It’s overdue.