August 31, 2009

Obama's disclosure rules are all bark and no bite

Despite President Obama's insistence that federal officials disclose their contacts with lobbyists regarding the allocation of stimulus money, the Washington Post reports that the rule is essentially toothless.

Since the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February, federal agencies have reported 197 contacts with lobbyists about stimulus grants.

In August, the entire government reported only eight such lobbying contacts. The Pentagon, which controls about $7.4 billion in stimulus spending, reported just one lobbying contact so far this year. The Homeland Security Department, with at least $3 billion to spend, reported none.

Yet the paucity of reporting masks activities by lobbyists and clients eager to obtain stimulus money for their projects. Lobbyists have separately reported work related to stimulus projects, and in many cases have operated in new ways to skirt restrictions on their efforts to influence stimulus spending.

The White House explanations for the lack of reported meetings are the same excuses — "It's an ongoing process" and "we're learning as we go" — that we've heard time and time again.

There is little uniformity in the encounters that are reported. The Department of Education's reports were detailed, but the Department of Energy produced only inscrutable scrawls. The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and Veterans Affairs have not reported any meetings.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Because the disclosure rules only affect federal officials and registered lobbyists, lobbyists are now coaching their clients about how to be "involved" with federal officials and still skirt the disclosure rules.

Despite the late summer attempt at closing this loophole, federal officials still allow unreported meetings between "interested parties" and federal officials if the money is not yet in the process of being disbursed.

How bad is it? Even David Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, is blasting the President for the loophole:

"At least if you're having a meeting with a lobbyist it's written down," Wenhold said. "There's $787 billion out there and you're telling me no one is lobbying for it? It's a whole lot of spin."

It is a bad sign for government transparency when the head of a lobbyist trade group has to point out Obama's broken disclosure promises.