Online Lobbying Disclosure — A Big Step Forward for Transparency

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The Sunlight Foundation has long worked to bring transparancy to the lobbying process, and yesterday the good folks there made something of a breakthrough. They’ve developed an online lobbying disclosure form. That may not sound important, but here’s why it matters.

Currently, lobbyists file disclosure forms four times a year. They are required only to disclose who their clients are, how much they got paid, what topics or bills they worked on for each client, and whether or not they visited the House, the Senate, or the executive branch. What that means is that if a defense contractor is using a lobbyist to make sure it gets a piece of the pie in an upcoming DOD budget, the public gets no info about the specific appropriation being targeted or the lawmakers who got the full-court press. We may only find out that the contractor was lobbying at all after the budget is passed.

The online disclosure form that Sunlight has developed — you can see a mock-up here — changes all of that. A lobbyist can pull up this form on her BlackBerry after each lobbying contact and easily fill out a very comprehensive range of fields: date and time of the meeting; name and client for the lobbyist; name, agency, and position of the federal employee(s) lobbied; topics discussed and specific actions promoted or urged.

If every lobbyist filled out a form like this after every meeting, a group like the Sunlight Foundation could build a constantly up-to-date database of lobbying contacts that would allow the public to sort by lobbyists, clients, federal agencies, bills, topics — any and all relevant metric by which money in politics can be overseen and rooted out. John Wonderlich, writing on Sunlight’s blog, adds, “This is just the beginning. What else can you imagine tracking? Would you set up an RSS feed of all lobbying related to your interests? Would you, as an agency head, track all lobbying directed at your agency?”

Now it’s just a matter of getting folks in government to see the (sun)light.

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