A few weeks ago, this blog joined Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica and others in calling for better disclosure around lobbying for US stimulus spending. Our suggestion was to skip the bans on lobbying and instead shine a big, bright spotlight on all correspondence between lawmakers and interested parties. This is pretty much what just happened.
I’ll quote the key provisions of a new set of rules, summarized by White House ethics council Norm Eisen:
“First, we will expand the restriction on oral communications to cover all persons, not just federally registered lobbyists. For the first time, we will reach contacts not only by registered lobbyists but also by unregistered ones, as well as anyone else exerting influence on the process. We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program.”
“Second, we will focus the restriction on oral communications to target the scenario where concerns about merit-based decision-making are greatest –after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made. Once such applications are on file, the competition should be strictly on the merits. To that end, comments (unless initiated by an agency official) must be in writing and will be posted on the Internet for every American to see.”
“Third, we will continue to require immediate internet disclosure of all other communications with registered lobbyists. If registered lobbyists have conversations or meetings before an application is filed, a form must be completed and posted to each agency’s website documenting the contact.”
A few thoughts on this: we thought the ban on talking to lobbyists seemed unworkable and likely to drive the process underground, which ProPublica reported was already happening.
While it’s not phrased as such, the second point above can be read as a roll-back of that face-to-face meeting ban to cover only the period between project bids and bid decisions, and a simultaneous expansion of the scope of the ban to cover everyone. So before and after a decision, Recovery Act officials can get lots of input, but during the decision cycle, they’re in lockdown regarding non-written communication. Written communication between government and interested parties — all of them — has to be published online, and quickly. This seems like a pretty good solution to me.
By way of caution, we should note that this is a rule change, and we haven’t seen it working in the wild yet. However, groups like ProPublica are watching carefully as the new guidelines are implemented.
But here’s the take-home message: a bunch of watchdog groups — ably led by Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica — raise some noise about an important but technical issue, and in a few weeks it gets swapped out for a better and incrementally more transparent process. It’s been a while since I’ve seen things work that way in Washington.
— Jonathan Eyler-Werve