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Landmark Research Released on How Washington Lobbyists View Federal Lobbying Disclosure Laws

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New research by the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University partnering with Lobbyist.INFO, and marketing research firm, ORI, reveal how the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act has affected lobbying in the corridors of the U.S. Congress.

Background

In September 2007, ten months after lobbyist Jack Abramoff became inmate 27953-112, President Bush signed into law the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA). HLOGA is now in its fifth year as the central law regulating lobbying at the federal level, yet it remains unclear whether time has improved the advocacy community's understanding of its provisions. What is HLOGA's aim? How does it affect advocacy? These questions seem to resonate more by the day.

As cited in its summary, the chief aim of HLOGA is "to provide greater transparency in the legislative process." This boils down to two aspects of advocacy: disclosure and ethics. Disclosure under HLOGA is stricter than it had been under its predecessor, the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). Lobbyists must now report their income, expenditures, and activities more frequently, while individuals and their organizations that were previously exempt from any reporting are now included.

In the case of ethics, lobbyists are required to understand House and Senate rules on what constitutes a gift. This is itself an ordeal, as exceptions abound. Food is a gift, but only sometimes. While a breakfast of so-called "finger foods" like bagels, muffins, and doughnuts are fair game, eggs and bacon are fraught with consequence and the danger of breaking the rules.

And it is the potential for negative consequences that most elicits people's attention. Before HLOGA, disclosure requirements and murky gift rules existed, but were perceived as lacking sanctions. To compensate, HLOGA's authors quadrupled potential fines, introduced criminal penalties for compliance failure, and mandated annual audits by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). According to Cleta Mitchell, Partner at Foley & Larner LLP and an expert on HLOGA compliance, "[t]he new law requires an attention to detail on a level that was not necessary under the prior law...."

The research looks to ascertain the impact of HLOGA's enactment on the Washington advocacy community. What burden, if any, has been placed on the lobbyist's trade? How, in the lobbyist's eyes, has the law affected the ability of Congress to receive good information on legislative issues? A complete free copy of the research is available below.

Eight-hundred-sixty-five registered and non-registered lobbyists took part in the research between Oct. 1 - 9, 2012. The margin of error is +/- 3.2 percent.

Research Top Findings:

  • Nearly 60 percent of lobbyists are somewhat familiar/very familiar with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA)
  • A majority of lobbyists believe HLOGA has brought increased transparency to the lobbying profession
  • 48.2 percent of lobbyists believe that HLOGA has not brought improved governance to the lobbying profession
  • A majority of lobbyists believe that HLOGA has made it slightly/much more difficult to interact with congressional staff
  • A majority of lobbyists believe that HLOGA has damaged the ability of Congress to better understand different perspectives on legislative issues
  • 71 percent of lobbyists personally fill out an LD-2 Disclosure Form; 82 percent lobbyists personally fill out an LD-203 Form
  • Two-thirds of lobbyists spend three hours or less completing lobbying disclosure forms each time forms are filed
  • A majority of lobbyists believe Congress provides enough direction for properly filing disclosure forms
  • A near majority of lobbyists believe Congress should offer ethics training for those who wish to influence Congress

Research Implications

First, the good news. Federal lobbying disclosure laws seem to be working. Lobbyists are completing and filing the required forms. The amount of time complying with the law does not seem too burdensome with the majority of the lobbying community spending less than three hours preparing and filing the disclosure forms for each filing. And lobbyists themselves believe there is more transparency in the lobbying profession five years after HLOGA was enacted into law.

But challenges with the disclosure laws remain, according to the lobbying community. The research showed that HLOGA has made it more difficult for lobbyists to interact with congressional staff, damaged the ability of Congress to better understand different perspectives on issues, and not improved governance or ethics in the lobbying profession.

Some of you might think that calls for still greater oversight and increased 'regulation' of the lobbying business is the answer. But with the constitutional protection afforded lobbying in the First Amendment (citizens have the right to redress grievances before the government), this is the wrong solution.

This research signals more education needs to be done by the lobbying community itself to ensure all lobbyists are very familiar and follow current laws in place. This is especially important as individuals begin their lobbying careers. They need to know and comply with disclosure laws.

You can download the complete study here.