Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lobbyist Registration Requirements - A Brief Overview

By Steven M. Worth, President at Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

Regulating private sector influence over the democratic policymaking process is a constantly shifting landscape in the US as policymakers and public interest advocates seek to maintain the integrity of the process and limit the influence of money while not infringing on the Constitutional rights of citizens to make their views known to policymakers. Rules are constantly being made and revised as gaps or unintended consequences become exposed (usually by the news media) so even veteran lobbyists need to periodically re-read these regulations in order to be in compliance. Penalties can be severe with financial fines and even prison time as punishment for those who make mistakes or who purposely ignore the law.

Most organizations and their employees that depend directly or indirectly on the government are not allowed to lobby or make political contributions at all. Employers have strict restrictions on soliciting their employees to make political contributions. And until the relatively recent controversial Supreme Court, there were absolute limits to the amount of financial contributions wealthy individuals and businesses could give political candidates.

Mark Twain once noted that “mankind is the only one of the animal kingdom that blushes or needs to.” To that point, the best constraint on undue political influence on the democratic process is simple transparency a requirement for lobbyists to list themselves publically according to whom they represent, what their purpose is, and how much they are getting paid to do that work. This is how the European Union got started in regulating their lobbyists and is how the United Kingdom regulates itself. In fact with this level of transparency in the UK, they even allow Members of Parliament to be paid lobbyists as long as their payments are publically disclosed.

Here are the links below to the four entities in the US Government that share responsibility for monitoring and regulating lobbying in this country. FARA is run by the Department of Justice to monitor foreign money being spent in the US to influence public policy. This was a program started just before the Second World War and is still in force today.

These are not perfect regulations but they have made the policymaking process in the US more transparent and somewhat more honest than it used to be. I recall hearing stories of dinner parties hosted by lobbyists a generation ago where Members of Congress could expect to find hundred dollar bills under their dinner plates. That sort of activity does not happen anymore. While money still plays a huge role in politics, at least the common citizen is more aware now of who is being paid what, by whom, and for what purpose and that does make a difference in determining how people vote and perhaps why.

The biggest conflict of interest remaining for Congress that has not been addressed to-date is their ability to buy stock in companies that are affected by their legislation. In the private sector this would be considered “insider trading” and is illegal, but not so for the US Congress.

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