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Want to find out who is trying to influence the way the DC Council or Mayor’s office approach important issues facing the city? Good luck. Important information about lobbyists’ activities just isn’t available when needed or is hard to find.
DC’s lobbying disclosure and reporting requirements need reform, as WAMU’s Patrick Madden recently illustrated. The law does not require reports from lobbyists often enough, and the information that makes its way into the Office of campaign Finance’s online search system is lacking in detail, out of date, and hard to access.
The recently-passed ethics bill addressed an obvious loophole, banning lobbyists from providing services to elected officials at a discount. Unfortunately, it did not attack more subtle problems with DC’s current lobbying registration, reporting, and disclosure.
Currently, lobbyists in DC have to fill out forms describing their lobbying activities on a semi-annual basis. Concerned stakeholders may therefore have to wait until months after important debates to find out what interests were working to influence the conversation.
30 states require reporting on at least a quarterly basis, while more than a dozen require monthly filing. DC should require that its lobbyists adhere to national best practices and file quarterly, monthly, or in near-real time.
Data is not accessible enough
Currently, the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) posts disclosure forms on its website, in PDF format, every 6 months. Some of that data can be accessed through OCF’s searchable system. But this system is simply not adequate.
For example, it is possible to create a list of all the companies that have lobbied David Catania, but can be very difficult to ascertain all of the public officials that David Wilmot has contacted. It is possible to find out what companies are lobbying on a specific issue, but not easily identify which public officials they are contacting in relation to that issue. The forms posted online are arranged by company, but lobbyists can work for more than one company and there is no way to search the system for an individual lobbyist.
Unfortunately, there is also no way to save, or link to, a search. Every time a user wants to find out who has been trying to influence Tommy Wells they have to start the search process from scratch.
OCF does provide for bulk data downloads. This is a positive step and is helpful for computer programmers and other savvy users, but is not particularly useful for laypeople.
If the online system allowed users to easily perform and save these kinds of searches then it might be workable. But in its current state it is not up to par. The OCF spent time and money building an online search tool, and they need to take the final steps necessary to make it a great one.
The DC Council is currently considering several campaign finance bills that will soon include a proposal (PDF) from Mayor Gray.
Currently, campaigns have to disclose their donors several times leading up to election day. If Mayor Gray’s legislation mirrors Attorney General Nathan’s testimony, this schedule will become even stronger. In the final days of a campaign candidates may even have to disclose on a near-real time basis. Lobbying disclosure should be improved to match, and both sets of data should be made available online in easily searchable formats.
Lobbying and campaign finance are inherently linked. Companies that lobby city government invariably donate to political candidates. The Council should include provisions to strengthen regulations governing the city’s lobbyists in any campaign finance legislation that they consider.