Greater Greater Washington

Data on lobbyists comes too late, is too hard to use

Want to find out who is trying to influence the way the DC Council or Mayor's office approach important issues facing the city? Good luck. Important information about lobbyists' activities just isn't available when needed or is hard to find.


Photo by luxomedia on Flickr.

DC's lobbying disclosure and reporting requirements need reform, as WAMU's Patrick Madden recently illustrated. The law does not require reports from lobbyists often enough, and the information that makes its way into the Office of campaign Finance's online search system is lacking in detail, out of date, and hard to access.

The recently-passed ethics bill addressed an obvious loophole, banning lobbyists from providing services to elected officials at a discount. Unfortunately, it did not attack more subtle problems with DC's current lobbying registration, reporting, and disclosure.

Currently, lobbyists in DC have to fill out forms describing their lobbying activities on a semi-annual basis. Concerned stakeholders may therefore have to wait until months after important debates to find out what interests were working to influence the conversation.

30 states require reporting on at least a quarterly basis, while more than a dozen require monthly filing. DC should require that its lobbyists adhere to national best practices and file quarterly, monthly, or in near-real time.

Data is not accessible enough

Currently, the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) posts disclosure forms on its website, in PDF format, every 6 months. Some of that data can be accessed through OCF's searchable system. But this system is simply not adequate.

For example, it is possible to create a list of all the companies that have lobbied David Catania, but can be very difficult to ascertain all of the public officials that David Wilmot has contacted. It is possible to find out what companies are lobbying on a specific issue, but not easily identify which public officials they are contacting in relation to that issue. The forms posted online are arranged by company, but lobbyists can work for more than one company and there is no way to search the system for an individual lobbyist.

Unfortunately, there is also no way to save, or link to, a search. Every time a user wants to find out who has been trying to influence Tommy Wells they have to start the search process from scratch.

OCF does provide for bulk data downloads. This is a positive step and is helpful for computer programmers and other savvy users, but is not particularly useful for laypeople.

If the online system allowed users to easily perform and save these kinds of searches then it might be workable. But in its current state it is not up to par. The OCF spent time and money building an online search tool, and they need to take the final steps necessary to make it a great one.

The DC Council is currently considering several campaign finance bills that will soon include a proposal (PDF) from Mayor Gray.

Currently, campaigns have to disclose their donors several times leading up to election day. If Mayor Gray's legislation mirrors Attorney General Nathan's testimony, this schedule will become even stronger. In the final days of a campaign candidates may even have to disclose on a near-real time basis. Lobbying disclosure should be improved to match, and both sets of data should be made available online in easily searchable formats.

Lobbying and campaign finance are inherently linked. Companies that lobby city government invariably donate to political candidates. The Council should include provisions to strengthen regulations governing the city's lobbyists in any campaign finance legislation that they consider.

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Matt Rumsey moved to D.C in 2005 to pursue a degree in History at American University. Originally from Connecticut, he has had no intention of leaving D.C. since he moved to Columbia Heights in the summer of 2008. He now lives in Ward 5. He currently works at The Sunlight Foundation. Views here are his own. 

Comments

Add a comment »

Time for an assignment for a computer science student at one of Washington's great universities to develop an open source tool to search this data handily and graduate on it.

by Jasper on Jul 18, 2012 2:22 pm • linkreport

Why do we need to know who David Wilmot has contacted? Who is he? Is he a lobbyist? What is your preoccupation with him? If we know what companies are lobbying, isn't that enough?

I agree the reporting system is awful, same for campaign finance, it's 15 years behind, but other than that, and more frequent disclosure, this "problem" should be fixed.

by @SamuelMoore on Jul 18, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

@SamuelMoore

David Wilmot is probably the name most connected with the word Lobbyist in DC politics (http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/looselips/tag/david-wilmot/). I think there's a reasonable argument to be made that this is common knowledge to anyone with an interest in DC politics. Although I'll admit that linking his name wouldn't have been a burden.

I think it would be good to be able to easily organize the data using his name because he, like many lobbyists in this town, works for more than one company. Having more ways to easily sort the data allows users to paint a broader picture and draw more accurate/informed conclusions.

OCF started to build a search system, no third party has stepped up to do a better job, I think OCF should improve upon the system that they created. Although, I'd be ecstatic if a local college student (or other person/group) stepped up to do it as Jasper suggested above.

by Matt Rumsey on Jul 18, 2012 3:12 pm • linkreport

Sadly, government data in difficult to manipulate formats and with poor querying tools is probably the norm, not the exception. Replace "data on lobbyists" with "data on X topic" and you've got a handful of similar articles.

by Rob P on Jul 18, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

@ SamuelMoore:If we know what companies are lobbying, isn't that enough?

That depends on how detailed you want knowledge on the lobbying. I don't think it's too much to ask to disclose who's lobbying whom and on what subject. You also want to keep an eye on campaign contributions and lobbying.

by Jasper on Jul 18, 2012 3:22 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure the focus on "lobbyists" per se is particularly helpful. A close family member worked for several years at a large non-profit that served youth. Since her job description required that she spend more than a certain amount of time talking to Congressional staff, she was required to register as a "lobbyist". I think exposing the links to money and various behaviors that smell of quid pro quo is more fruitful.

by oboe on Jul 20, 2012 11:57 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or