I am a big fan of a transparency agenda, but I wonder who is supposed to be held responsible for violations. My view of transparency is that we use it to force light on the bad actors. But the bad actors are the government officials, elected or otherwise, not the lobbyists. They are the ones who violate the the public trust. And, furthermore, if they are getting bribed, they should be accountable for that.
A couple of recent posts on the subject seem to miss this point.
In a series of posts at the Sunlight Foundation's blog, Paul Blumenthal and John Wonderlich discuss the limitations on lobbying in the stimulus and bailout bills. Paul summarizes part of John's post with:
The justification being given by the administration for these rules is that they do not want the stimulus funding process to be mucked up by lobbyists seeking bits and pieces of the $700+ billion bill for unworthy projects. However, as John notes, we are seeing unregistered influencers go to lobby for stimulus funds. We are also seeing this happen in other large pots of money. Take for example the $700+ billion bailout handled by the Treasury Department:
If something gets "mucked up" by someone ... aren't government officials doing the mucking? In Congress, lobbyists don't write bills, Congressmen do. In the executive branch, either politcal appointees or civil servants write legislation. It seems to me that the incidence of accountability has to rest on the government official. Right? I mean, if someone is passing out the goodies inappropriately ... they are.
For an executive branch official, lobbying mostly means educating the official and making an argument. Perhaps grassroots pressure is brought on, but that is ultimately the problem of the politicals. If there is a quid pro quo, whether an expensive gift, cash, or whatever, it is a crime and should be dealt with, very harshly and expeditiously, through the criminal system.
For Congress, there are political contributions also and political pressure from interest groups. That's why we disclose contributions, and that's why all the contributions should be disclosed immediately and for all contribution levels, especially online contributions. And interest groups apply pressure. That's what they are there for. The unions are doing that on card-check. The business groups are fighting it.
IPDI's Julie Germany writes up GWU professor Jonathan Turley (no conservative) on this point. Turley offers a much more pointed set of reforms:
Turley’s suggests that we:
Put 75% of the responsibility of the current political crisis on the members of Congress.
Go back to core principles of what we are trying to achieve in order to fix the system. Go back to Madison’s idea of democracy. Force the factions that divide us into the open. Create systems that prevent back room dealing and special deals that are hidden from the public. Part of the solution is to reform Congress, instead of trying to reform lobbyists.
Force Congress to get rid of the things that cause temptation. Get rid of all gifts, other than symbolic gifts donated to the office they serve. Get rid of earmarks. Require total disclosure of all family members who work for lobbyists.
Address the fact that the system is too detached from its constituents and that incumbents have all the power. This city loves the fact that Congress doesn’t change, but it’s killing this country. This includes allowing other parties to rise in the political system, changing the electoral college, and reforming the way primaries are held.
The best summary is "reform Congress" not "reform lobbyists". Let us make Members accountable for their decisions. After all, that's who we vote for. That is who bears the brunt of the criticism. Or should.
If someone does something wrong, we should have the information to wrap it around their necks and hang them in the public's eye. We should be able to help their electorates destroy their careers. Ultimately, I don't see what lobbyists really have to do with that.
When progressives get angry on Congress for doing things they don't like, like David Sirota and the cramdown legislation, Sirota cites a BusinessWeek piece about lobbyists targetting moderate Dems:
Industry lobbyists are organizing home state bankers to pressure moderate Democrats they hope will be receptive to limiting the kinds of loans eligible for cramdown. One target: Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana.
What did these lobbyists do that was so bad? Have a bunch of constituents (bankers) call him and meet with him? Did they explain the logic of this (insane) legislation and how it hurt them? Did Bayh ultimately buy that logic? If so, what is wrong with that?
Or is he alleging that Bayh took bribes, either through contributions or gifts or whatever? If so, what are they?
Or are these lefties just whining because Bayh ultimately thought it was a bad idea, and they couldn't muster arguments that were good enough? In that case, their problem is that they should be electing "Better Democrats", that is people who share their ideas. Some of them get that idea.
But again, what does that have to do with lobbyists?
And isn't a transparency agenda -- like Obama's -- that focuses on lobbyists, not government officials, basically intellectually bankrupt?