Last November the Center for Responsive Politics and OMBWatch reported that 1,418 lobbyists "deregistered" during the second quarter of 2009, a huge spike in numbers and an unintended consequence of President Obama's anti-lobbyist policies and rhetoric -- lobbying going underground.
The finding fit with anecdotes from lobbyists who said Obama's rules against K Streeters serving in his administration caused them to rethink whether they really need to be registered, since the threshold at which point "lobbying activity" requires disclosure offers wiggle room and many people overly disclosed out of caution. And others -- folks like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle -- seemed willing to simply flout the law rather than wear a "Scarlet L."
On Wednesday, CRP and OMBWatch retracted their finding: The wave of deregistrations probably has more to do with 2007's Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (known affectionately by wonks as 'Helloga') than Obama's policies, since, it turns out, most of the deregistrations happened in 2008 before Obama took office. The Jack Abramoff-inspired reform bill added several additional disclosure requirements, such as quarterly filing instead of semi-annual filing.
"In 2008, 3,627 lobbyists deregistered, compared to only 548 in 2007 and 1,467 in 2009," the groups say in a new report. "That means the number of lobbyists that deregistered in 2008 was nearly seven times greater than those that deregistered in 2007."
The report says the previous finding was a mistake owing to the vagaries of lobbying disclosure forms and a mismatch between those forms and the Center for Responsive Politics' own database, which is based on the forms. There is no box to check if one ceases lobbying -- just Line 23, where a company or lobbying firm puts the name of any lobbyist no longer working from a particular client.
Still, the groups found that lobbyists who deregistered in 2009 had been active more recently than lobbyists who ditched K Street in 2008. "The elevated rate of lobbyist deregistrations in 2009 may indeed be evidence that events in 2009 spurred many lobbyists to deregister," the report says. "Nonetheless, this data is far from conclusive and does not resolve the question of whether Obama's policies pushed lobbyists to deregister, a theory the Center erroneously suggested in November."
Nevertheless, many observers and lobbyists themselves see it that way. As Mike Fulton, a lobbyist with Golin Harris and a board member with the American League of Lobbyists, told HuffPost Monday, "There's no doubt that many lobbyists have revisited their status in order to achieve a number of goals, including jobs in the administration, and to avoid the 'Scarlet L.'"
Last week the New York Times reported that White House staffers have been making use of private email accounts and nearby coffeeshops to avoid having to disclose contact with lobbyists, to the dismay of good-government groups.