The Right to Know

The public does not have a right to know.

Six times a year I file lobbying reports with New York State.  As a registered lobbyist in the state I have a legal obligation to disclose to the public what issues I advocate for, who my advocacy is directed at, and what I spend as a lobbyist.  I additionally file two annual client reports as the director of the association that hires me to lobby.

I deeply resent these filings.

I am a private citizen lobbying on behalf of a private concern.   I do not work for the public or spend public money.  Therefore, the public has no right to know.   Yet I must go through the effort and expense of registration and filings, and remain subject to fees and fines.   This is a barrier to my first amendment rights of assembly, to petition the government, and speech.

Am I trying to influence policy?  Yes.  A voter also tries to influence policy, as does someone who writes a letter to the editor, or attends a school board meeting, or puts a bumper sticker on their car.  We all try to influence policy, that is the nature of our system.

If the public has a right to know what goes on in its government – and it absolutely does – the onus of disclosure belongs on the public’s employee and representative.   The elected official and public employee are answerable to the public, they, not the private citizen representing a private concern, should be responsible for reporting what they are doing, what they are asked to do, and how they are asked to do it.

Flipping the responsibility for disclosure from the lobbyist to the public official has a number of benefits aside from being philosophically more coherent.

1)     There are fewer elected officials than lobbyists.  It would be simple for a politician to put meeting schedules online, and to report on who was asking for what.  In New York there are 212 state legislators and potentially thousands of advocates.  Besides, we are already paying the elected official and his/her staff.   Regardless of what they are doing, a politician should report on their activities.  We should know if they spend an afternoon at the VFW, or in their office meeting with constituents.  We should know if they are meeting with 30 lobbyists a day, or if they spend eight hours a day playing golf.

2)     Public official disclosures would be easier to track.  We know who the public officials are.  Conversely interest groups have the ability to hide behind euphemistic names.   People know who represents them.  If they can perform an online search to see that their representative on Wednesday meet with 15 representatives from association “x” and was asked to vote “y” on “z.”  But it would take more than a little know-how to devise a list of all the people advocating for something in health care policy.

3)     Public official disclosures would put an end to capricious enforcement.  Under the state lobbying laws there is no fair trial and no sound appeals process for misdeeds or errors.  There are only fines and penalities imposed by an unelected body.   Whereas if the public knew everything a public official was doing that conduct would be subject to newspaper articles, and political scrutiny.   Searing sunshine would be enough to keep the system clean.

4)     Public official disclosures would promote clarity.  It would be much easier to understand the pressures placed on public officials if they reported who was asking for what and how.  We would be better aware of the frequency and coordinate of advocacy efforts.  We would know who was calling and how often.  We would know who was buying dinners and drinks, where and when.  Under the current process, the misleadingly labeled advocacy group, let’s call them something like Citizens for the American Way merely has to report on generalities.  For the subject of their lobbying they may report “state budget,” or something narrower like “education funding.”  The group can report the target of their advocacy as the “state legislature and executive branch.”   In short, current filings tell us precious little about what is really going on in the halls of government.

We all agree that government transparency is a public good.  Most of us think it is a public obligation.  An important first step is to ask public officials to report on their conduct.  It has the added benefit of being consistent with our Constitutional protections for individuals.

If we want politicians and staff to answer to us, we should start by making them answer to us.  Though it may be tautological, it is also common sense.  We the people deserve as much.

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4 thoughts on “The Right to Know

  1. I was reminded via Facebook that government officials were required to report contacts during the process of enacting ARRA, better known as the Obama stimulus.

    While I confess to lacking intimate familiarity with implementation of that federal policy my understanding is that there were many problems.

    First, disclosures were not centralized but reported by agency making it difficult for the public to track the breadth of an advocacy effort.

    Secondly, there were wild exemptions from reporting requirements. For instance, members of Congress were exempt from reporting on oral communications. This means that if you were lobbying a Representative go ahead have the meeting, or meet them at a bar to discuss your requests, just don’t put it in a memo. Viola!, transparency thwarted.

    Finally I understand that vagaries in the regulations allowed for varied interpretations. The result was that no two agencies reported the same type of contacts nor with the same clarity.

    My view is that there was no sincere attempt at “open-ness” with the stimulus, but only cynical lip-service to the idea.

    I would be happy to be proven wrong.

  2. Amen. Lobbies represent groups of people, and there is nothing wrong with that. As you mention, transparency on both parts is what is required.

  3. I share your resentment. The disclosure requirements on Federal lobbyists are ludicrous, redundant and offer no useful information to the public. We’re required to disclose the tiems on which we bobby by bill number or general issue description and identify what components of the Federal government we engage.

    As a lobbyist for a professional association, all of this information is already available on our website. More readily avaialble and more comprehensive than any Federal disclosure form.

    Quarterly, registered Federal lobbyists also have to file an additional report on any political contribution we make, no matter how small, even though this information is already filed with the Federal Election Commission or other regulatory bodies in the case of State or local candidates. In addition, the association muist disclose these same donations. That’s three sources for the exact same data.

    There is talk in the District that some of the new proposed regulations will prohibit certain Federal officials from attending any event hosted by an individual or entity that is or employs a registered lobbyists. Meaning that the NEA could not ask the Secretary of Education to address their membership because the NEA has a lobbying shop. Or the Director of the FBI could not brief the National Sheriffs Association on the activities of the National Gang Center.

    Transparency is fine, but prohibiting constitutionally-protected and lawful communications between citizens, individuals or those organized, with the government is certainly not.

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