When Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., became speaker of the House in 2007, she promised she would lead "the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history." To that end, House Democrats passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.
In addition to a bunch of silly new rules about what kinds of food could be served at Capitol Hill events hosted by interest groups, the act imposed heavier reporting requirements on lobbyists for every donation they made to federal candidates, officeholders and their affiliated organizations. The new law also extended an existing one-year ban on lawmakers and their staffs from lobbying Congress to two years.
Unfortunately these good-government regulations have backfired. Instead of making the federal government more open and transparent, according to a new report published by the Center for Responsive Politics, they have simply driven the influence-peddling industry underground.
In 2008, the year after Congress passed the law, more than 3,400 registered lobbyists deregistered and stopped reporting their activity altogether. But just because a lobbyist deregisters, it doesn't mean he has stopped lobbying. This helps explain why client lobbying spending is up across nearly all sectors since 2007, yet over that same time the number of registered lobbyists has dropped by 25 percent.
Only lobbyists who spend more than 20 percent of their overall work time performing specifically defined lobbying activities (for example, meeting with lawmakers) are required to register as lobbyists. And it is nearly impossible to prove that someone exceeds that threshold. So many registered lobbyists can legally choose not to re-register and keep doing exactly what they were doing before.
CRP analyzed lobbyist reporting data and discovered this is exactly what is going on in Washington. Of the 1,732 lobbyists who "deactivated" in 2012, CRP found that 46 percent of them were working for the exact same employer doing the exact same job they were the year before.
For example, all eight professional lobbyists working for the American College of Physicians "deactivated" in 2012, even as the group increased its lobbying expenditures from $946,831 in 2011 to $1.1 million that same year. And then there are the lobbyists who never register in the first place, such as former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. After President Obama spiked his nomination as secretary of health and human services, Daschle became a million-dollar "special policy advisor" for the law firm Alston & Bird. By complete coincidence, Alston & Bird's lobbying income doubled while Daschle "unlobbied" at the firm.
This new CRP report demonstrates that the reforms of 2007 have failed to clean up Washington by micromanaging every personal relationship in the city. But there is a right way to reduce lobbyists' influence. The more control the federal government has over the private sector of the U.S. economy, the more the private sector will invest in controlling the federal government. If you want to get rid of the alligators for good, you need to start by draining the swamp.