Yesterday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made quite a splash on Twitter by announcing that she would be willing to work with Ted Cruz on a bill to permanently ban former members of Congress from registering as lobbyists.
Ted Cruz replied, presumably in between browsing porn tweets:
How lovely! The most unlikely duo, cooperating to take on influence and lobbying in Washington.
The bill’s text, if there ultimately even is a bill, hasn’t been released yet, so we can only assume it’d be limited to the “clear ban” Ocasio-Cortez described. But though AOC’s idea is very well-intentioned, it is meaningless, and would likely backfire, without the inclusion of important lobbying reforms. This is because our current lobbying rules are complete shit.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires lobbyists to register and disclose their clients if they spend more than 20 percent of their time on lobbying, or make more than two contacts with covered government officials (like congressional staff). As well as being pretty arbitrary, this standard is very easy for anyone, including ex-congressmembers, from lobbying without disclosing who they’re lobbying for and how much they’re being paid. Are you not a lobbyist if you only spend 19 or 15 percent of your time contacting government officials?
Activities like buying ads or setting up astroturf websites to influence government officials also aren’t covered. A “government relations” firm, for example, could spend $1 million on ads on the side of DC buses or at the Capitol South metro station saying “Congressman Funt Glunk, Vote No On HR. 69" and never have to tell anyone on whose behalf they spent that money.
If you needed any more evidence that the rules don’t work, look no further than the actual activities of former congressmen. The most famous is former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose registration-skirting activities were so notorious that the practice of unregistered lobbying is sometimes known as the “Daschle loophole.” But there’s a whole world of stupid titles these ex-congressmen get that aren’t technically lobbying. Ben Nelson, former senator from Nebraska, is listed as a “senior adviser” for Agenda Global, a “an entrepreneurial public affairs firm specializing in corporate communications, public relations, grassroots and opinion leader mobilization,” with clients including AT&T and Eli Lilly. What a joke.
And there is precedent for well-intentioned rules backfiring. The Obama administration enacted kinda-strict rules barring former lobbyists from working in his administration, and people who left his administration from lobbying for two years. But the rules had the unintended effect of discouraging lobbyists from registering as lobbyists—the number of registered lobbyists actually declined after Obama took office, and only recently hit as high as it was in 2010. This isn’t because lobbyists took their briefing books and left town under Obama. It’s because it was simply easier for them to avoid registering, in case they ever wanted to go and work for the administration.
Ocasio-Cortez is absolutely right that members of Congress have no business trading on the connections they gained in office for profit. It is disgraceful that they do this. But without fixing the utterly pathetic rules surrounding lobbying, we wouldn’t see all these former members of Congress suddenly take up social work or farming; they would simply continue to lobby without ever registering.
Every shithead former member of Congress who currently makes six figures to call their former staff twice a week and have some expensive lunches on the company dime would keep doing that, just with the title “Senior Adviser” or “Special Consultant” instead. And Washington really doesn’t want to regulate this world, because there are thousands of rich slimebags doing this every day, and they all hope to do it one day if they aren’t doing it already. The entire economy of 14th St. small-plates restaurants and $15 cocktails depends on it.
This is something that could be fixed by improving the Lobbying Disclosure Act and actually enforcing it—as it stands, prosecutions for violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act are incredibly rare. A strict lobbying disclosure act, requiring more frequent and detailed disclosures and scrapping the bizarre 20 percent rule, would go a long way towards achieving this, and would make a ban on former members of Congress lobbying worth it.
Without that, you’re just giving Ted Cruz political points, and you’ll probably have to actually talk to him in real life, too. Don’t put yourself through that.