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No Less Lobbying, But Less Disclosure In Obama's First Year

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Hordes of lobbyists have deregistered in the last two years after Congress enacted more onerous disclosure requirements and the Obama administration put in place a series of anti-lobbyist policies. But that doesn't mean there's been less lobbying. In fact, we'll likely find out this week (when fourth-quarter reports are filed) that the influence industry beat its all-time record for lobbying revenue in 2009.

We just might not know as much about who lobbied for whom -- call it O-pacity in government.

"This is the consequence of the Obama administration demonizing lobbyists and so the result is more and more deregistration," said Melanie Sloan, director of watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It's an unsurprising reaction to the administration's efforts to make lobbying less and less palatable."

So pervasive is the trend that among the deregistrants is Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates for stricter disclosure requirements and transparency in government. The New York Times prominently featured Miller in a Sunday story about lobbyists going "underground" en masse, apparently to avoid the new rules.

Miller told HuffPost on Tuesday that she does not fit the profile of an underground lobbyist (or "influence launderer," as some call them).

"I didn't deregister to avoid strenuous lobbying reporting rules. That wouldn't be logical given the fact that we call for more information in a more timely fashion," said Miller, who deregistered shortly after Obama's election in 2008. "My deregistration had more to do with the fact that I wasn't lobbying and I didn't want to shut down opportunities to talk with anyone."

Miller pointed out that the Sunlight Foundation, which has a staff of 37 and dozens of websites, does not seek to influence policy as its sole mission, and that the organization is perfectly transparent about its agenda.

On his first day in office, President Obama announced tough rules against lobbyists entering the administration. The White House followed up with further restrictions in March, and in September the administration banned lobbyists from federal advisory boards. Good-government groups have given the administration high marks for its crackdown on influence peddlers.

In the second quarter, after the restrictions ramped up, more than a thousand lobbyists deregistered, according to a joint study by OMBWatch and the Center for Responsive Politics. Three thousand lobbyists have deregistered since the beginning of 2008.

"[T]he thousands of lobbyists who appear to have left their line of work may not have actually done so," said a CRP release. "At the federal level, many people working in the lobbying industry are not registered lobbyists, instead adopting titles such as 'senior advisor' or other executive monikers, thereby avoiding federal disclosure requirements under the Lobbying Disclosure Act."

After Congress enacted stricter lobbying disclosure requirements in 2007 (and introduced criminal penalties), ethics lawyers encouraged anyone potentially doing lobbying work to register out of an abundance of caution. So much for that.

If lobbyists are flouting the law, there's not much incentive for them to stop. Since the Lobbying Disclosure Act became law in 1996, the Secretary of the Senate has referred more than 8,000 potential violations to the Justice Department, roughly 4,400 of which were referred in 2009 -- but there have been only three enforcement actions in all that time. Ethics lawyers said a lot of the 2009 violations seemed to be lobbyists failing to file proper paperwork in the deregistration process.

Ellen Miller isn't the only former lobbyist who says she wasn't really lobbying to begin with. That's exactly the line taken by Brien Bonneville and Larry Mitchell, founders of a "non-lobbying entity" called K Street Research. Bonneville and Mitchell were both registered lobbyists at KSCW, but said they started their new venture after taking a close look at what they did and how it fit with the law and Obama's new policies. Bonneville told HuffPost in an email that K Street Research agrees with Miller that if you're not lobbying, you shouldn't register.

"We feel that she has similar interpretations of the law to the ones we have supporting our decision and business model," Bonneville wrote. While K Street Research will provide policy information to corporate clients, Bonneville and Mitchell said they won't make any lobbying contacts to influence policy (though their clients might).

John Wonderlich, still registered to lobby for the Sunlight Foundation, called the K Street Research business model "outrageous."

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