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Monday, October 31, 2005

Gov't. - Putting lobbying records online is fiasco in Congress

The Washington Post has a lengthy story today headlined "Lobbyists Tangled in a Paperless Pursuit" by long-time congressional expert Jeffrey H. Birnbaum. Some quotes:

Lobbying disclosure, at least as practiced, is a near contradiction in terms. Lobbyists rarely need to file documents on their activities -- only twice a year -- and reveal nothing beyond who pays them, how much and for what general purpose.

That's why so many people cheered when, out of the blue, the House of Representatives decided to make lobbyists file disclosure reports electronically. Do-gooders dreamed of greater access to information about Washington's secret society. And high-priced advocates looked forward to finding out faster what their competitors were charging.

But none of that has come to pass. In fact, this seemingly sensible and long-overdue reform has sparked one of the nastiest and most counterproductive mess-ups on K Street.

In late June, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) -- lately best known as a friend of embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- directed the clerk of the House to require all lobbyists to file disclosures over the Internet. * * *

"It's been a nightmare," said Peggy Houlihan, a lobbyist who attended a contentious briefing on the new system in the chandeliered hearing room of the Administration Committee last week.

One problem is that the House and the Senate have entirely different and incompatible systems. Lobbyists must file separately with each chamber.

But because of Ney's decision, there's a strong chance that the House's system, which is far less accessible to the public, could trump the Senate's and leave lobby watchers in the lurch.

The Senate posts its lobbying reports -- some filed electronically but most handed in on paper and then scanned into an Internet-ready format -- for all the world to see under the "legislation and records" section at http://www.senate.gov/ . Researchers are able to peruse the site to gain real insight and knowledge. The House, in contrast, makes reading its documents as difficult as possible. House-deposited reports are not posted on the Internet. To read them, a person must find his way to the basement of the Cannon House Office Building and wrestle with computer terminals there that offer limited search capabilities.

And here's the clincher: Even though the House will require filing over the Internet, it has no plans to put the records online. Its habit of keeping its door largely closed to public inspections will remain entirely unchanged.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 31, 2005 11:21 AM
Posted to General Law Related