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The enduring power of the ex-senator

three-quarters portrait of John Breaux, wearing a dark suit in his former Senate office with an American flag to his right.

John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who served 32 years in Congress before opening a lobbying firm, will be back in his old committee room today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To see the power of Washington’s revolving door — and the weakness of congressional lobbying regulations — check out two events today involving well-heeled corporate interests, health care policy and powerful former members of Congress.

This afternoon at the offices of the influential Bipartisan Policy Center, one of the cofounders of the organization, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, will be emceeing a program presenting “innovative strategies” on improving the nation’s health from CEOs of major corporations and leaders of several health associations. Daschle is not registered as a lobbyist, even though he serves as a senior adviser to DLA Piper, a law firm that has spent nearly $137 million since 1989 lobbying on behalf of a wide range of blue-chip corporate clients.

Those clients include two major health insurers, Aetna and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, both companies that are represented on the panel Daschle is moderating. The event is just an hour long, which is potentially noteworthy: Congressional regulations say an individual does not have to register as a lobbyist with Congress unless he or she spends more than 20 percent of his or her time working for an individual client in a given period.

Thirty minutes after Daschle’s panel gets underway, his former Democratic Senate colleague, John Breaux, will be leading a discussion about the role of digital technology in health care in an even more impressive venue — in a Senate hearing room, sponsored by the Senate Select Committee on Aging, which the Louisianan used to chair. Breaux is a registered lobbyist with the Breaux Lott Leadership group, named after him and his partner, former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. The notice for the event gives a nod to Breaux’s role as one of the three leaders of the Alliance for Connected Health Care, an organization so new it does not yet appear to have filed the 990 form that would provide details on officers and expenses with the Internal Revenue Service. The other leaders: Lott and Daschle.

While the Breaux Lott firm does not list Alliance for Connected Health Care as a client, Daschle’s employer, DLA Piper, does. DLA Piper registered as a lobbyist for the alliance in February and was paid $170,000 through the first half of this year.

[...]


Wrangling messy political data into usable information

Thanks to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, individuals and organizations must disclose the activities they undertook each quarter while representing themselves or their clients to Congress. After the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 was passed, there was a rapid and sustained use in electronic filing for lobbying disclosures. There are now over 500,000 disclosure forms available for analysis in electronic formats from the past seven years. Although the disclosures don’t offer nearly as many specifics as one would hope, when taken in aggregate the available data provides a high level overview of the movements and trends of the lobbying industry.

Sadly, we can’t just skip from downloading the data to calculating aggregate statistics. The disclosure forms include no reliable way of knowing when two lobbying firms or two clients of a lobbying firm are the same. Without taking an educated guess, we don’t know from the data that the client called “1Sky Education Fund” and the client called “350.org (formerly known as 1Sky Education Fund)” are in fact the same organization. Compounding the issue, two firms usually don’t disclose the name of the same client in the exact same way. Some lobbying firms hardly even disclose their own name consistently. Before we can get into the high level overview of lobbying disclosure data, we must merge and identify all the organizations and individuals in the disclosure forms.

The traditional approach to this problem has been to build software that allows people to label and tag disclosure forms. Human annotation by experts is a tried and true method for understanding these forms. If I had not been one lone intern but rather, say, a hungry swarm of human labor ready to descend on the senate disclosure data like politically inclined locusts settling in on vast fields of informative wheat, I too would have built a system to store the stream of annotations I would have been producing. But, for better or worse, this summer it was just me and a computer with 32 cores, 64 gigabytes of memory and no inborn interest in the lobbying activity of “NPLMCC–Nuclear Power Labor-Management Cooperation Committee” during the first quarter of 2014.

Moreover, we’ve found that lobbying disclosure forms all get submitted during the same two week period each quarter. This means that the month after the disclosure deadlines are hell on researchers. When disclosures hit, everybody drops everything and helps fight the good fight. Despite the best efforts of the labor liquidity movement, hiring and subsequently firing large swaths of lobbying disclosure experts is not a tenable system for dealing with the quarterly disclosures long term. If an organization wants to annotate and tag lobbying disclosure forms, the organization has to be structured to deal with sharp, regular and unavoidable labor surpluses and deficits from the get go.

Some organizations amortize this labor cost by creating dual roles like an individual serving as a reporter primarily and only as an annotator when needed, or finding other disclosure data sets of similar size that are “on” when lobbying disclosure forms are “off.” The Sunlight Foundation was not willing to pursue such a drastic organizational shift and so we decided to explore how far we could get with only software. If a technological solution could be found, we figured it would be faster, cheaper and more reliable than a team of human annotators with, hopefully, acceptable levels of accuracy and precisions.

And so, with all of the above in mind, I embarked on a quest to train a computer to care about politics. The Influence Explorer team figured that if I could reproduce even a fraction of the accuracy that human annotation provides, then a technological solution offered some very real benefits that made the trade off reasonably attractive. In short, we hoped that by sprinkling magical silicon dust over the lobbying disclosure data, we wouldn’t have to destroy the environment by burning of all the midnight oil folks would need to get the projects done each quarter.

ECHELON

Upon arrival to the Sunlight Foundation in May, I was given the goal of automating the annotation of lobbying disclosure data. I had effectively free rein to do what I thought was best. While in pursuit of this goal, I built a series of systems capable of easily answering interesting questions about the world of lobbying disclosures. ECHELON is the third prototype I’ve built so far and is by far the most successful and powerful. With just a few hours of computation, ECHELON is able to approximately reproduce the resolution precision that several years of dedicated hand curation built up.

I’m happy to say that automated annotation and tagging is well within the realm of possibility. I was able to build a system that approximated the results of other organizations. In particular, the number of unique clients and lobbying firms produced by our program was within a few thousand of the same statistics for human annotated data for the same time period. Considering that we started out with over 1,000,000 clients and registrants in total, we were very excited when we saw that we were getting down to around 33,000 clients and 7,000 registrants.

This is not meant to be a deep technical blog post, so I will only touch on the technical architecture before diving into some of the results. ECHELON is a Clojure project built on top of the free version of Datomic and levagesInstaparse heavily. At this point, the core of ECHELON consists of 1500 lines, with another 1000 lines for one off experiments and queries that I’ve been exploring. Most of the core code deals with loading in the data and getting it into just the right format.

As we’ll soon see, such a small project can pack a mean punch.

Parsing field names

One of the major forces powering ECHELON is the understanding of the disclosed name fields. Thanks to Instaparse, we were able to create a formal grammar for parsing the various corporate entities that appeared in the name fields for client, registrants, affiliated organizations and foreign entities. This means that we can turn “SkyTerra Communications, Inc., formerly Mobile Satellite Ventures” into something that looks like the following:

(("skyterra" "communications" :corporation) :fka ("mobile" "satellite" "ventures")) 

All that the above is indicating is that there was a corporation called Skyterra Communications, (“skyterra” “communications” :corporation), that was formerly known as, :fka, Mobile Satellite Ventures, (“mobile” “satellite””ventures”). Which is neat, but sort of useless alone. Here’s what one gets when one runs “SKYTERRA COMMUNICATIONS CORPORATION F/K/A MOBILE SATELLITE VENTURES” through ECHELON’s parser:

(("skyterra" "communications" :corporation) :fka ("mobile" "satellite" "ventures")) 

We get the exact same result for both examples! Two names which look very different produce the exact same result. What I’ve done is create a way of taking a wide variety of inputs and imposing a rigid structure on them, with an emphasis on making similar inputs produce the exact same result.

Once I had run this parser over every organization name field in the disclosure data, I had a fair amount of power to play with. The parser is a vital step in the automated annotation process. As an example, I’ve picked out LightSquared because it is a organization that has a long history and has operated with several different names. Here are all the various names that ECHELON has annotated to be the same thing:

Names of entities matched to Lightsquared
LightSquared
SkyTerra Communications, Inc., formerly Mobile Satellite Ventures
LightSquared (Formerly known as SkyTerra)
SkyTerra
MOBILE SATELLITE VENTURES
LightSquared (formerly known as Skyterra / Lightsquared)
SkyTerra / LightSquared
LightSquared (formerly SkyTerra Communications, Inc.)
Mobile Satellite Ventures, LP
MOBILE SATELLITE VENTURES LP
SkyTerra (Formerly Mobile Satellite Ventures)
Mobile Satellite Ventures
Skyterra
Skyterra (formerly known as Mobile Satellite Ventures)
Lightsquared
Skyterra (formerly known as Mobile Satellite Ventures, LP)
SkyTerra Communications, Inc. (formerly Mobile Satellite Ventures)

So, by the use of a formal grammar and a smart annotation step, we are able to easily find and record the various names that an organization has used as it went about lobbying Congress.

Querying

ECHELON provides a powerful interface for querying the data. Assuming the answer to a question exists within the data, there hasn’t been a question yet that I’ve been able to think of that ECHELON cannot answer. The system is surprisingly powerful, more so than I could have hoped for. Here are the organizations which come up the most often in the disclosure data, broken down by the various associated names:

Alias Number of Occurrences
“PATTON BOGGS LLP” 3611
“Patton Boggs LLP” 3469
“Squire Patton Boggs formerly Patton Boggs LLP” 170
“Squire Patton Boggs” 7
“Patton Boggs, LLP” 6
Alias Number of Occurrences
“Van Scoyoc Associates” 6526
Alias Number of Occurrences
“Holland & Knight LLP” 5062
“Holland & Knight, LLP” 3
“HOLLAND & KNIGHT LLP” 2
Alias Number of Occurrences
“AKIN GUMP STRAUSS HAUER & FELD” 4472
“Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld” 19
“Delaware North Companies on behalf of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld” 11
“Oneida Indian Nation on behalf of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld” 10
“City of Houston on behalf of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld” 10
“Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld” 1
“Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld” 1
Alias Number of Occurrences
“K&L GATES LLP” 4056
“K&L Gates LLP” 212
“K&L GATES, LLP” 55
“K&L Gates, LLP” 12
“K&L Gates, LLp” 1
Alias Number of Occurrences
“Hogan Lovells US LLP” 1459
“HOGAN & HARTSON LLP” 787
“Hogan & Hartson LLP” 634
“Hogan Lovells US LLP f/k/a Hogan & Hartson LLP” 380
“Hogan Lovells f/k/a Hogan & Hartson LLP” 131
“Hogan Lovells US LLP f/k/a Hogan & Hartson LLP” 3
Alias Number of Occurrences
“Cornerstone Government Affairs, LLC” 2999
Alias Number of Occurrences
“Cassidy & Associates, Inc. formerly known as Cassidy & Associates “ 2215
“Cassidy & Associates, Inc.” 268
“Cassidy & Associates” 244
“CASSIDY & ASSOCIATES” 142
“Cassidy & Associates Inc.” 70
“Tiffany & Co. on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 7
“Hospital for Special Surgery on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 6
“College of New Rochelle, The on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 6
“Claflin University on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 6
“Hampton University on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 5
“United States Tennis Association Inc. on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 4
“CASSIDY & ASSOCIATES, Inc.” 3
“National Acquarium in Baltimore, Inc. on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 3
“Institute for Student Achievement on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 3
“National Aquarium in Baltimore, Inc. on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” 2
“Cassidy & Associates, Inc.formerly known as Cassidy & Associates” 1
Alias Number of Occurrences
“PODESTA GROUP, INC.” 2902
“Podesta Group, Inc.” 62
Alias Number of Occurrences
“ALCALDE & FAY” 2894
“Alcalde & Fay” 14

There are many interesting little tidbits in the above output. The value of the parser is easily seen as we look at all the variations of the names that pop up within the documents. Specifically, there is a phenomena within disclosure forms where a third party will include itself within the name of the client, i.e. “Patton Boggs on behalf of Northrop Grumman Inc.” even though the lobbying firm that filed the form could be “Cassidy & Associates.” In general, the client name will be something like “Firm A on behalf of Client A” while the registrant will be neither “Firm A” nor “Client A.” This is a common pattern and the parser and annotator account for it. There are several theories about what these disclosed “on behalf of” relationships mean. The most believable one is that the disclosing firms hire these other firms to lobby on behalf of their clients in areas where the disclosing firms is weak. The clients get a wider range of expertise and, perhaps more importantly, clients don’t have to go through the trouble of coordinating with more than one lobbying firm directly. These seems like a reasonable explanation, but these relationships admittedly deserve scrutiny than I’ve been able to give them.

In some rare instances the grammar of the disclosure gets messed up though. While I’m not so into linguistic prescription, it seems like “Entity A on behalf of Entity B” usually means that “Entity A” undertook some work for the benefit of “Entity B” and not that “Entity B” undertook some work for the benefit of “Entity A.” However, as evidenced above, sometimes form fillers will flip the entity positions within the “on behalf of” statement. This confuses the automated annotator. That’s why “Hospital for Special Surgery on behalf of Cassidy & Associates” is resolved to be the same entity as just “Cassidy & Associates.” There is a potential solution to this problem involving more information and a more complicated annotation process, but this issue only occurred a handful of times and thus didn’t feel like it was within the scope of the current project. .

We can see from this that Pattons Boggs occurs most often! Neat. What sorts of activities does Boggs undertake for its clients? Part of the disclosure process is that Patton Boggs must break down what they do into specific issue codes representing the areas that any lobbying activity can fall under. Thus, here is a list of lobbying codes and the number of times Patton Boggs has undertaken an lobbying activity with that code during a quarter on behalf of itself or a client.

Issue Code Number of Occurrences
“Budget/Appropriations” 1679
“Transportation” 965
“Health Issues” 908
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 593
“Medicare/Medicaid” 550
“Urban Development/Municipalities” 399
“Homeland Security” 393
“Energy/Nuclear” 351
“Housing” 332
“Financial Institutions/Investments/Securities” 332
“Defense” 290
“Telecommunications” 284
“Aviation/Aircraft/Airlines” 272
“Education” 257
“Economics/Economic Development” 247
“Law Enforcement/Crime/Criminal Justice” 236
“Natural Resources” 227
“Labor Issues/Antitrust/Workplace” 226
“Environmental/Superfund” 222
“Trade (Domestic & Foreign)” 163
“Government Issues” 148
“Indian/Native American Affairs” 127
“Agriculture” 115
“Insurance” 113
“Clean Air & Water (Quality)” 110
“Retirement” 106
“Consumer Issues/Safety/Protection” 99
“Disaster Planning/Emergencies” 81
“Communications/Broadcasting/Radio/TV” 66
“Chemicals/Chemical Industry” 65
“Copyright/Patent/Trademark” 64
“Banking” 64
“Gaming/Gambling/Casino” 61
“Utilities” 59
“Food Industry (Safety, Labeling, etc.)” 59
“Pharmacy” 54
“Science/Technology” 53
“Roads/Highway” 53
“Manufacturing” 49
“Marine/Maritime/Boating/Fisheries” 46
“Travel/Tourism” 41
“Computer Industry” 41
“Tobacco” 40
“Small Business” 40
“Medical/Disease Research/Clinical Labs” 39
“Immigration” 38
“Foreign Relations” 38
“Railroads” 35
“Veterans” 33
“Sports/Athletics” 32
“Bankruptcy” 24
“Torts” 23
“District of Columbia” 19
“Real Estate/Land Use/Conservation” 18
“Fuel/Gas/Oil” 16
“Beverage Industry” 15
“Aerospace” 15
“Firearms/Guns/Ammunition” 12
“Automotive Industry” 10
“Family Issues/Abortion/Adoption” 9
“Accounting” 9
“Welfare” 8
“Advertising” 8
“Trucking/Shipping” 7
“Media (Information/Publishing)” 6
“Alcohol & Drug Abuse” 5
“Arts/Entertainment” 3
“Intelligence and Surveillance” 2
“Constitution” 2
“Commodities (Big Ticket)” 2

Woah! No wonder Patton Boggs is the entity that shows up the most, they seem to be doing a little bit of everything. How neat. I wonder how things change with time, though. Does Patton Boggs have its bread and butter type lobbying activities or has it been a dynamic firm? Here are the top five activities for each of the past seven years for Patton Boggs:

2008 Number of Reports
“Budget/Appropriations” 281
“Transportation” 127
“Health Issues” 105
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 76
“Medicare/Medicaid” 72
2009 Number of Reports
“Budget/Appropriations” 308
“Transportation” 167
“Health Issues” 149
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 95
“Medicare/Medicaid” 89
2010 Number of Reports
“Budget/Appropriations” 296
“Health Issues” 198
“Transportation” 152
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 113
“Medicare/Medicaid” 101
2011 Number of Reports
“Budget/Appropriations” 254
“Transportation” 150
“Health Issues” 134
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 92
“Medicare/Medicaid” 74
2012 Number of Reports
“Budget/Appropriations” 224
“Transportation” 158
“Health Issues” 122
“Medicare/Medicaid” 82
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 79
2013 Number of Reports
“Budget/Appropriations” 184
“Transportation” 122
“Health Issues” 119
“Medicare/Medicaid” 83
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 76
2014 Number of Reports
“Budget/Appropriations” 132
“Transportation” 89
“Health Issues” 81
“Taxation/Internal Revenue Code” 62
“Medicare/Medicaid” 49

So it seems that Patton Boggs does have its standard issues that it hits every year, with very little movement in the ranking of issues each year. A solid firm then, a stoic firm one might say, a firm that knows what it is good at and sticks to its guns. Good on you Patton Boggs, good on you. Now, this is not the limit of what is possible with ECHELON at all. There is a whole rabbit hole of queries and results that we could disappear into. Every which way I turn when touching the data new questions arise and they can quickly overwhelm us. This post is only meant to introduce and briefly explain ECHELON and its capabilities and so let’s focus on one particular type of query to wrap everything up.

A Comedy of Errors

Back when I was young and naive, i.e. three months ago, I had great faith in the identifiers that the house and senate gave to each registrant and client. You see, registrants are the ones who are actually filling out and filing the forms that I’ve been analyzing. Every registrant, which typically means every lobbying firm, must register that they are going to lobby on their clients’ behalf. Then, each quarter, the registrants file a report on behalf of their clients disclosing the activities they undertook. The house and the senate give each client and firm pair a unique identifier to use when filing the forms. While these identifiers aren’t terribly useful by themselves, they could potentially make it easier to link up all the activities that firms undertook for clients across time. Early on, I was advised by colleagues to look into how reliable the identifiers were. After some rough experiments, it seemed that lobbyists made enough mistakes when entering the identifiers that correcting them all by hand was possible but would not be enjoyable nor productive. I decided to ignore the government issued identifiers for a while if I could by.

Obviously, ECHELON has been a success without using the government issued identifiers. Moreover, ECHELON can tell us exactly how much of a problem these government issued identifiers would have posed if I tried to use them. By relying on only the automated annotation, we can easily find mistakes that lobbyists made when entering in the identifiers on the forms.

First off, form fillers don’t seem to make mistakes when entering in the senate issued identifier. We’ve checked and the senate identifier is apparently used to log into the disclosures systems for both the senate and the house. Thus, these forms cannot be uploaded and still have the senate id wrong. This was a surprising and encouraging find!

The house identifier did not fare nearly so well. I was able to find a couple dozen serious uncorrected mistakes that were made when entering in the house id. At first blush, fourteen mistakes out of over 500,000 forms filled out is a pretty decent track record. However, this number is a lower bound on the number of mistakes that have been made and gives no indication as to the actual number of mistakes. If I ran a better query to find mistakes, found better techniques for annotation, or caught an unknown mistake I was making in my current code, the number of found mistakes in the house identifiers column could sharply increase.

What distresses me most about these mistakes is that they occur in the field where precision matters the most. A firm can forget to include an activity in the disclosures, fudge the numbers on how much they were paid, even misspell the name of their client and it would be fine. That sort of thing doesn’t really matter all that much. Identifiers matter because they are meant to precisely identify an organization and there is no room for error. By making any mistake at all when entering in the identifier, no matter how small the mistake may be, lobbying firms effectively negate the entire purpose of the field in the first place. I’d rather have them leave it blank than to put in nonsense.

Putting the rants of a young pedantic wonk aside, there are two types of mistakes that I’ve found so far when firms are filling out disclosure forms. The first is just a simple typo where something like “1001” becomes something like “10001” or “2001.” The majority of the mistakes found where just typos. These mistakes aren’t terribly interesting, so let’s just look at two examples of them.

“Process Handler et al.” registered that it would be lobbying on behalf of “Mr. Cie Sharp” in early 2007. All throughout 2008, the activities undertaken by the firm on behalf of the client were disclosed with the house identifier “363570022” (as evidenced by the Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4 reports). However, the house identifier of “362570022” was used on theQ1 report for 2009. After that, the reports switched back to using “363570022” until the relationship was terminated at the end of 2009 (Q2,Q3,Q4, Q4 termination).

“Hoffman, Silver, Gilman & Blasco P.C. (formerly known as Robertson, Monagle & Eastuagh [sic]” has had a long multi year relationship with the “Alaska Forest Association.” The relationship between the two entities is typically disclosed with the house identifier “306260000.” In the fourth quarter of 2011 though, three separate reports were filed to detail this relationship. None of them are amendments to the others, all of them spell the client’s name wrong and two of them use the wrong house identifier (the incorrect “306250000” and “306260005” vs. the correct “306260000”). Strange.

Moving beyond typos, there were two cases of general incompetence. “Keevican Weiss Bauerle & Hirsch, LLC” has lobbied for “TriState Capital Bank” under the identifier “405970000” since 2009. Although they eventually settled in with using the correct identifier, the fourth quarter of 2009 saw that same pattern of three different disclosures, none of them amendments, with two of the disclosures using the wrong identifiers. Thefirst mistake was a simple typo where an extra zero was included at the begininng of the identifier. The second mistake seems nonsensical though; there isn’t a simple way of getting from “405970000” to “408550000” without making at least three typos. If we look for other relationships which have the same identifier though, we see that “Keevican Weiss Baurele & Hirsch, LLC” also does work for “C & S Patient Education Foundation dba Conquer Chiari” and, surprise, that relationship has the “40885000” identifier.

“The Susquehanna Group” has lobbied for “The Corps Network” for about a decade now. This relationship typically uses the identifier “358530003”.One time they made a typo, who cares, but another time they did something odd. I think they just made up a house identifier and used that instead. This report uses “200052379” as the house identifier. That’s more than a few typos and there doesn’t seem to be any other client of anyone who has ever used that identifier. So, as far as I can tell, during one quarter “The Susquehanna Group” just made up an identifier and decided to use that instead. Very strange.

Summary

This has been a terribly long way to explain something that most anyone who has ever worked with raw lobbying disclosure forms has discovered: lobbying disclosure forms are awful in a variety of astounding and disappointing ways. The disclosure forms provide very little information about what is actually going on and the information that is provided is on par with second hand gossip at best. Only by leveraging a fair amount of technical resources and techniques could these forms be processed and turned into something useful. In a way, we’ve shown how ECHELON bootstraps itself out of nothingness and into the Lobbying Form Typo Limelight. ECHELON needs to exist because look at what ECHELON has already had to do to exist! In all seriousness though, the ECHELON project has been a success that shows the power and potential of automated annotation systems. Just as the earth ever so patiently applied pressure and force on the excrement of long forgotten herbivores to create the fuel that powers our modern day economy, we too can apply annotation techniques and hard work to lobbying disclosure data and create something that can further our understanding of the modern political landscape.

[...]


Secrecy and money have no place in lobbying – and a new bill aims to ensure just that

We are celebrating September with blog posts and a special event dedicated to improving the ways the public learns about how influencers get their voices heard in Washington. A few days ago, we told you about the The Real Time Transparency Act (S. 2207H.R. 4442), a bill that would dramatically improve disclosure of big contributions to campaigns by requiring all campaign contributions of $1000 or more to be disclosed within 48 hours.

Today we focus on shining a brighter light on resources that are used to directly influence policy. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., recently introduced the Lobbying and Campaign Finance Reform Act (S. 2754) to ensure that everyone who is a paid influencer is required to register and report his or her lobbying activities, and to attempt to de-link lobbying and fundraising.

The Bennet bill closes what is known as the 20 percent loophole — a provision in current law that allows some of the most powerful influencers in Washington to operate as “stealth lobbyists” because they spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying for a specific client. The fiction of the 20 percent loophole is that it implies that only registered lobbyists wield undue influence. In reality, many of the most influential people in Washington are far more influential than the vast majority of lobbyists who do register.

One such example is former Massachusetts Senator and current New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown, who, while at Nixon Peabody, focused on “business and governmental affairs” — aka lobbying — “as they relate to the financial services industry.” Brown likely took advantage of the 20 percent loophole, never registering and reporting his lobbying — er, governmental affairs activities. Brown has threatened to sue Harvard professor Larry Lessig for the sin of referring to Brown as a “lobbyist.” To avoid the risk of a law suit, we’ll just be sure to refer to Brown as a “stealth lobbyist.” Scott Brown’s he-doth-protest-too-much threat of a lawsuit notwithstanding, the portions of the Bennet bill that close the 20 percent loophole are a simple expansion of current, well-established law. Treating stealth lobbyists like every other lobbyist should be something that garners bipartisan support.

Likewise, the remaining provisions of the bill should appeal to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. The bill prohibits members of Congress from soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists when Congress is in session, helping to eliminate the appearance or actuality of quid pro quo corruption and relieving members from some of the time consuming burden of fundraising. It also bans lobbyists from the practice of bundling — collecting and forwarding multiple contributions in an effort to get credit from the candidate for raising a lot of money for his or her campaign. The solicitation and bundling limits should appeal to lobbyists, who won’t feel obligated to respond to members’ calls for cash or to hit up their friends and associates for contributions.

The Bennet bill embraces the right of lobbyists to advocate for their cause, while recognizing that they should not be able to do so in secret, nor should they have an advantage as a result of their fundraising prowess. Sunlight and ReThink Media will discuss this and other reform proposals on Sept. 16 at an event to explore “The Price We Pay for Money’s Influence in Politics.” To join us, RSVP here.

[...]


Transparency bills could offer easy wins, but will Congress bite?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Members of Congress return from their summer vacation next week with the expectation that they will accomplish next to nothing before Election Day. But if members up for re-election want to point to some accomplishments before voters go to the polls, we suggest they look at bills aimed at strengthening transparency of money in politics.

All month, during “Transparency September,” Sunlight will focus on ways to educate and inform the public on how influencers get their voices heard in Washington. And while some will shudder at the thought of “campaign finance reform,” the legislation we are advocating for this month does not limit what can be spent on campaigns or who can spend it. Indeed, in most cases, the legislation simply expands upon current, well-established law. What could be less controversial than that?

So, as a favor to members of Congress, may we present for your consideration:

The Real Time Transparency Act

Introduced by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, the Real Time Transparency Act (S. 2207, H.R. 4442) requires that contributions of $1,000 or more to candidates, parties and PACs are disclosed within 48 hours. The bill simply expands a 48-hour disclosure requirement already in place in the weeks prior to an election. Citizens should not have to wait weeks or months to find out who is making large contributions to members of Congress.

Ready to help make it happen? Head here to sign our petition or write a letter to the editor. Each option takes just a few minutes, and it can make a big difference in helping us send a our message to Congress: It’s time to get serious about real-time disclosure.

The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act

The Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act is a simple bill that would require Senate candidates to electronically file their campaign finance reports with the FEC, the same way House candidates and presidential candidates file. The bill, S. 375, has been introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and has 50 bipartisan cosponsors — but continues to be blocked by transparency foe Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The current paper filing system delays disclosure, wastes hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and kills a lot of trees. It’s time for Senators to join the 21st Century by electronically filing their campaign finance reports.

The DISCLOSE Act

OK, we admit this one is a bit more controversial. But it shouldn’t be. As reintroduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the DISCLOSE Act, S. 2516, H.R. 148 would disclose unlimited “dark money” that is spent on elections. Identifying donors of campaign contributions is fundamental to our campaign finance laws and is viewed as the least restrictive way to deter corruption and inform voters. Donors to outside groups would not be prevented from giving unlimited sums if the DISCLOSE Act were enacted. Their political contributions would be made public just as contributions to parties, PACs and candidates are. After Citizens United, voters should know where millions of dollars of money in elections is coming from, and whether it might be buying access to elected representatives.

The Lobbying and Campaign Finance Reform Act

Recently introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., the Lobbying and Campaign Finance Reform Act requires people who are paid to lobby to register and report as lobbyists, ensuring that some powerful influencers who currently operate in secret disclose information about their activities the way the vast majority of lobbyists already do. S. 2754 also prohibits members of Congress from soliciting campaign contributions from lobbyists when Congress is in session and prohibits lobbyists from bundling large contributions. While dipping a toe into campaign finance reform with its solicitation and bundling provisions, the Bennet bill should be appealing to members of Congress who like to shift the blame for all that ails Washington to lobbyists. It should also appeal to lobbyists, who will be relieved of the pressure of responding to members’ calls for cash and of hitting up their friends and associates for bundled contributions. It’s time to ensure that everyone who is paid to lobby is registered as a lobbyist, and that lobbyists’ influence is not magnified by their ability to bundle contributions.

We’ll be addressing these and other transparency issues during an event on September 16, from 9:30 – 12:00. The event will feature two of the Senators—Tester and King—who have taken the lead on transparency issues and introduced two of the bills mentioned above. RSVP here if you wish to attend.

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Disclosure needed as Obama administration reverses lobbyist ban

K Street, Washington’s lobbying HQ. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Obama administration announced it will reverse part of the lobbying ban it instituted in 2010 and allow registered lobbyists to serve on any of 1,000 advisory boards, commissions or panels that provide policy making advice to the government. Reporting on the subject, Politico noted “watchdog groups” were “disappointed” by the decision. The Sunlight Foundation — often labeled one of those “watchdog groups” — is, in fact, not disappointed. At least not yet. We have long thought that rather than an arbitrary ban on one category of influencers, while still offering corporate heads, union leaders and “stealth” or unregistered lobbyists a seat at the table, the public would be better served with a strengthened disclosure regime.

There can be no doubt that too many special interests have too much access to decision-makers in Washington, D.C. But it is the height of absurdity to pretend that only registered lobbyists wield undue influence. As a result of a loophole in existing law, many of the most influential people in Washington avoid registering as lobbyists by claiming that they spend less than 20% of their time lobbying for any particular client. Yet former members of Congress — Tom Daschle and Newt Gingrich come immediately to mind — are far more influential than the vast majority of lobbyists who do register and have therefore been banned from serving on advisory boards.

It is equally foolish to believe that wealthy political donors, like Sheldon Adelson and Tom Steyer, who give millions of dollars in hard and dark money are somehow less influential than a mid-level lobbyist from a small shop who may or may not get his calls returned by senior administration officials. Yet the prior ban would preclude the latter and not the former from serving on advisory boards.

But, while the administration has rightfully decided to set aside the ban, it must ensure that there are new, strong disclosure requirements in place so that the public is aware of every individual who has special access as a result of serving on an advisory board, and what interests he or she represents. Robust, timely transparency is a far better tool than a limited ban in order to determine whether advisory boards are balanced or whether they are stacked to favor one special interest or position.

Even with this reversal, the Obama administration leaves in place an unnecessary prohibition that demonstrates it continues to favor stealth lobbyists and large donors to registered lobbyists. Under the revised rule, registered lobbyists are still prohibited from serving on advisory boards in their “individual capacity,” and may only serve if they are specifically appointed to represent the interest of a particular group.

This twisted position means that a casino magnate like Adelson could, for example, serve on a board addressing Internet gambling and could also serve as a private citizen, advising the government on just about anything of interest to him. However, a registered lobbyist would be limited to serving only on a board addressing the interests she represents, regardless of her expertise in other areas. If the ban on serving in an individual capacity is necessary, it should apply as to every member serving on advisory boards, or else it should not apply at all.

It’s likely that the administration maintained the prohibition against lobbyists serving in their individual capacity as an effort to save face—demonstrating its continued antagonism towards K Street, while attempting to address issues raised in a lawsuit challenging constitutionality of the ban. But if the Obama administration really wants to address undue influence in Washington, it should stop creating hollow exceptions and instead focus on making membership on advisory boards much more transparent.

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New research indicates STOCK Act might be working

The US Capitol, bathed in sunlight. Photo via Flickr user Sky Noir A recently released working paper by Meng Gao and Jiekun Huang of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has examined how hedge funds have historically benefitted from … [...]


Public universities, for-profit colleges seek higher stake in student loans

Younger voters are notoriously disinterested in the political process, at least when it comes to elections for Congress. But a Sunlight Foundation analysis of student loan lobbying data suggests that major players in the political process are interested in them.

Since Congress voted in 2010 to push commercial banks out of the federally funded student loan market, lobbying by commercial banks on the subject has dropped significantly. But lobbying by other entities that have much to gain from keeping young adults in debt continues apace – especially higher education organizations, which have redoubled their efforts to ensure public lines of credit for school are not neglected.

Lobbying by the education sector increased from 315 total reports between 2008 and 2010 to 480 reports between 2011 and 2013 — a 52 percent increase. With a growing majority of students relying on loans to attend college, universities have obvious interests in ensuring access to credit.

Figure 1. Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation

The most active education organizations are a mixed bag. Some, like Emory University (18 reports since 2008) or the University of Iowa (22 reports since 2008) are well-regarded and nationally-known institutions. Others, like Greater Caribbean Learning Resources (22 reports since 2008) are for-profit institutions. One of the most active colleges, Keiser Collegiate System (21 reports since 2008), is a for-profit turned non-profit.

When we zoom into the organization level, the most active organizations before the 2010 reforms were major student loan providers SLM Corp. (45 reports from 2008-2010), the parent company of Sallie Mae and First Marblehead (41 reports in 2008-2010). Interestingly, Ashland Inc. (a chemical company) and Eisai Co. Ltd. (a pharmaceutical company) were both quite active on “student loans,” but their interest in the issue was more indirect. Both firms held large positions in securitized student loans during the financial crisis when the securities market collapsed. They advocated for the government to restore liquidity to a “frozen” market in student loan-backed auction rate securities (SLARS).

Figure 2. Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation

Notably, not a single organization dedicated to representing students’ or borrowers’ interests shows up in any of our lists.

Meanwhile, since 2010, financial sector lobbying declined (Table 1). In fact, lobbying reports mentioning “student loans” by both the securities and investments sector as well as commercial banks declined by 43.2 percent — from 373 reports (2008-2010) to 212 reports (2011-2013).

Sector Before Reform (2008 — 2010) After Reform (2011 — 2013)
Securities and Investments 218 128
Commercial Banks 155 84
Total 373 212

Table 1
Figure 3. Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation

But financial lobbying on the topic of student loans didn’t go away. After all, there is still a thriving private student loan market.

Now, it’s the loan servicers who probably have the most to lose. One bill, introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mark Warner, D-Va., would change repayment structures. Rather than being on the hook for a fixed payment, borrowers would be on the hook for 10 percent of their annual income, capped at $10,000 a year. Another bill, is a proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to allow the 25 million or so individuals with outstanding debt to refinance their loans at lower interest rates, which would amount to a tremendous loss in revenue for loan servicers.

In general, loan servicers are compensated based on the unpaid principal balance. They also often get money from late fees. In other words, the easier it is for borrowers to pay off their loans, the less profitable it is to be a loan servicer. As a result, a lot of lobbying by loan providers is defensive; they profit from the existence of a student loan bubble, and anything that challenges it (including direct subsidy for higher education) is a threat to their business model.

While different organizations have different reasons for being active on student loans, a few things are clear: One, a thicket of organized interests care about the issue; two, the passage of the 2010 student loan reform bill changed that thicket; and three, not a single organization representing students or borrowers shows up in any of our lists of leading organizations.

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Labor is split on supporting Keystone XL, but not on lobbying for it

Unions have long been split publicly on their positions on the Keystone XL pipeline. Building trade unions have supported the pipeline and progressive service unions have opposed it.

When it comes to lobbying, however, labor presents a unified pro-pipeline voice. Only the unions who support the pipeline have actually bothered to lobby on it. Those who oppose it have not.

Figure 1 below shows that none of the labor organizations that have filed lobbying reports mentioning Keystone are publicly opposed to the project.

bar chart of union lobbying on Keystone XL
Figure 1. Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation

The Laborers Union, whose president, Terry O’Sullivan, has been perhaps the most vocal labor advocate for the pipeline, tops the list with 20 reports. The Plumbers & Pipefitters Union (11 reports) and the Operating Engineers Union (10 reports) round out the top three organizations. In fact, all of the top five lobbying unions are those which have signed on to construct the pipeline for TransCanada, and whose memberships stand to gain from the jobs created.

We find no public position on Keystone for the MTA Police Benevolent Association or the Transportation Communications Union, which dissolved in 2012.

The pipeline promises to create thousands of jobs to be filled by members of many of the nation’s largest unions. This has pushed labor into a choice between environmentalists — their natural democratic coalition allies who oppose the pipeline — and pro-business, often anti-union forces that favor building the pipeline. This has been widely reported on as something of a “civil war” amongst the union left in the last few years. However, even as unions remain divided, the unions that have lobbied on Keystone XL have not.

In 2012, CWA, SEIU, UAW, Transport Workers Union, United Steelworkers Union and Amalgamated Transit Union issued a joint statement with the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council applauding President Obama’s move to delay the pipeline. Meanwhile, as the Keystone XL project website notes, the Laborers Union, Teamsters Union, Plumbers and Pipefitters Unions, AFL-CIO, the Operating Engineers Union and the Pipeline Contractors Association have entered into “comprehensive Project Labor Agreements” with TransCanada to work on construction of the pipeline should it be approved.

The unions whose members will concretely benefit from the pipeline — mostly building trades unions — have been quite active in favor of the pipeline, despite the fact that it involves breaking from their traditional coalition allies. The unions that won’t directly benefit from the pipeline — mostly service sector unions — have held with their progressive coalition allies. But they haven’t lifted a lobbying finger to try to stop it.

Unions may be publicly divided on Keystone XL, but when lawmakers hear from labor’s lobbyists in Washington, they hear that labor loves Keystone.

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In Washington lobbying, pro-Keystone XL advocates dwarf pipeline opponents

To approve or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline? To anger environmental activists and some high profile donors (most prominently, Tom Steyer), or to put vulnerable Senate Democrats at an even bigger risk (most prominently, Mary Landrieu, D-La.)? That is the decision that President Obama continues to delay, and Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev. continues to put off.

With a final decision still looming six years after the original application, it’s as good a time as any to look at the cumulative lobbying efforts on this issue. While Keystone has become a cause célèbre for many environmental activists and prominent political donors, who oppose its construction, the professional lobbyists active on the issue in Washington are almost all asking for the pipeline to be built.

We looked at the 10 sectors that filed the most lobbying reports mentioning “Keystone” since 2008, visualized in Figure 1. Unsurprisingly, oil & gas dwarfs the rest of the list with 206 reports, more than four times the 49 reports filed by environmental groups. Building trade unions, a traditional Democratic constituency, are third on the list at 46 reports. These unions support the pipeline because they believe it will create jobs for their members.

Bar chart of top sectors lobbying on Keystone XL
Figure 1. Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation

Of the 10 sectors (all of which filed at least 10 reports), nine support building the pipeline. Only environmental groups are opposed.

Figure 2 looks at the lobbying activity over time. For the first year of lobbying, 2009, it was just the oil & gas industry and the environmental groups. Then, in 2010, the building trade unions and electric utilities got involved. Then, in 2011, the oil & gas industry really kicked up its lobbying efforts, and a bunch of other industries supporting the pipeline got involved as well — increasingly overwhelming the environmentalists.

Tilegrid chart of sector lobbying on Keystone XL over time.
Figure 2. Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation

At the organization level, the same pattern persists. As seen in Figure 3, of the organizations that filed more than 10 reports mentioning Keystone, eight support the pipeline. And the six most active organizations all support the pipeline.

Top organizations lobbying the most on Keystone XL pipeline
Figure 3. Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation

Of these most active organizations, only the Western Organization of Resource Councils (14 reports, #7 on the list) and the League of Conservation Voters (10 reports, tied for #10 on the list) opposed the pipeline.

While a final decision on Keystone XL continues to be postponed, our analysis shows that the inside-the-Beltway resources come down heavily in support of building the pipeline.

Notes on methods:

We determined organizational positions on the Keystone XL pipeline based on public statements of position released by the corporation/organization or its officers.

The pipeline is a project of the TransCanada corporation, which supports its construction. ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell both operate Gulf Coast refineries that would benefit from the Canadian crude delivered by the pipeline. Both companies and their officers have made public statements in favor of Keystone XL (Shell, ExxonMobil). TransCanada has signed project labor agreements with the Laborers International Union of North America, the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union and the Union of Operating Engineers, to build the pipeline. Because of the jobs this construction promises, all of these unions publicly support of the pipeline. Canadian oil shale producers represented by the In Situ Oil Sands Alliance rely on pipelines like Keystone XL to export their crude and get it to refineries. There has been congestion in the past and they will benefit from the increased capacity Keystone XL will bring. The CEO of Devon Energy, another Canadian Oil producer, is also an outspoken proponent of the pipeline. Business Roundtable and the American Petroleum Institute are also both in favor of the pipeline because it will benefit their members.

The Western Organization of Resource Councils is a regional grassroots environmental organization with chapters in the areas in the path of the proposed pipeline. It has been vocally opposed to the pipeline plan, specifically focusing on local landowners who would be affected. The League of Conservation Voters, an influential environmental organization and major political contributor, is also strongly opposed to Keystone XL.

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Let’s talk lobbying and transparency at Open Knowledge Festival 2014

From banking to data protection, arms trade and climate change; from Washington, D.C. to Brussels, Santiago and Canberra; big business and special interest groups will always find a way to influence public policies.

At its best, professional lobbying has the power to educate public officials and help them make more informed decisions. In reality, influence advocacy has, in many countries, created a new form of policy capture that goes beyond bribery and traditional corruption — but is equally dangerous to our democracies and economies.

Professional lobbyists and policymakers usually negotiate behind closed doors, and do so deliberately: They tend to believe they can do their job better if it remains in the shadows. And even if it does not directly result in political scandals — such as the EU’s Dalligate, the Indian Radia tapes controversy or various “cash-for-questions” scandals in the UK — excessive industry lobbying can misrepresent the facts, disregard diverse perspectives and thus skew public policy.

Still, only a handful of countries have attempted to regulate lobbying, and most of these attempts are so weak and limited in their effect that it’s as though they did not exist.

As always, the lack of political will is an important factor, but not the only one to blame for ineffective regulation. In 2014, there is still no global consensus on who constitutes a lobbyist (Is it only paid professionals? Does it include in-house lobbyists as well as third party representatives?); what is considered lobbying (Should regulations cover grassroot organizing and public relations activity?); and who might be a target of lobbying (Is it only high level public officials or a broader range of civil servants?).

We’re now starting a dialogue to bring lobbying out of the shadows.

The Sunlight Foundation, Access Info Europe, Transparency International and Open Knowledge are preparing a session at OKFestival to boost the conversation around lobbying transparency and gather evidence from the open government community that can guide our future reform efforts.

We believe that a clear and robust lobbying disclosure regime is essential to understanding the dynamics of politics. Opening up information about lobbying also allows civil society to create tools such as Influence Explorer and LobbyPlag, which enable others to convert lobbying information into meaningful narratives; evaluate, fact-check or counter political messages; and track business influence.

During the session, we want to hear more about the challenges activists face when trying to introduce lobbying regulation and how they think lobbying should be defined. We will showcase transparency projects that try to translate lobbying into stories average citizens can relate to. We are planning to talk about how to better advocate for lobbying data, how to translate the information that’s available and how to connect the dots about the influence industry without reliable government data. The session will introduce and discuss ongoing efforts to create globally applicable principles for definitions, disclosure and enforcement, and touch base on advocacy campaigns that proved successful.

There is real need for learning and coordination around the ways in which countries can promote better lobbying disclosure norms. Our hope is this session will result in stronger civil society activities around the issue, and that we can form a network of transparency watchdogs and open government activists who will coordinate and support reform. You don’t have to be an expert in lobbying regulation to attend — we want to begin a dialogue that fits the needs and challenges of a broader segment of this community.

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