Real Time Online Transparency

On March 20, after many months of promises to help restore public trust by leveling the playing field between private interest advocates and the public interest, President Obama issued a bold new transparency policy applicable to lobbying about the stimulus program:

Any lobbyists who want to talk with a member of my administration about a particular Recovery Act project will have to submit their thoughts in writing, and we will post it on the Internet for all to see. If any member of my administration does meet with a lobbyist about a Recovery Act project, every American will be able to go online and see what that meeting was all about.

For those who believe in transparency, this executive directive was a great first step. But there is no reason to limit transparency just to lobbying about the stimulus program. The president should now mandate real time online transparency of lobbying throughout the executive branch. When lobbying happens, and it is the daily grist of the government mill, the press and public are left in the dark, until if ever something leaks. The president has the power to fix this, by requiring all executive branch officials who are lobbied on any issue to disclose what was sought by whom in real time and online. Providing the public and press such notice of what issues are under consideration will create opportunities for discussion and debate before any action is taken and dramatically reduce the risk of the secret deal making that undermines trust in our government.

In addition, President Obama should call on Congress to amend the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) that now requires only some lobbyists and some lobbying by those who lobby members of Congress to register and disclose their activities quarterly. What it should require is registration of all lobbyists and disclosure of all lobbying, whether of the Congress, the executive branch or the independent agencies, and in real time and online.

To do that the LDA must be amended to close glaring loopholes and to enhance other provisions of federal law. One loophole allowed former Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and many others, to advise and coordinate lobbying without registering or reporting as other lobbyists must. Another is the loophole that exempts those who lobby Congress only part of their time, which by some estimates enables a third of all lobbyists, including many of the most powerful, to avoid all registration and disclosure. The LDA also should require these disclosures be made in real time online, not quarterly. The public should know promptly -- not months afterwards -- who the lobbyists represent, with whom they meet, what they seek and what political contributions they and their clients are making to support their cause. All that disclosure is essential, not just for the idea of transparency, but because such transparency about lobbying will create opportunities for informed open discussion before legislative action is taken. The absence of that transparency has led to deep mistrust of Congress, when the public only learns about it months later and concludes that legislation was "bought." Private interests are entitled to petition the government, but not behind closed doors, where they can use their influence and money to get their way before the public has any notice of what they are up to, or opportunity to chime in.

President Obama's advocacy of transparency reflects Louis Brandeis' observation about human nature -- "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the best policeman." Put more plainly, people behave better when they believe their behavior is being observed. And bad things too readily happen in the dark. Creating transparency -- restoring balance between private and public interests -- requires implementing real time online disclosure about who is attempting to influence our government officials.