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.