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The emergence of groups like CRP a savvy corps of policy wonks with obvious technical expertise has increased accountability. CRP crosses lobbyists' registration reports with campaign-finance filings to produce pungent press releases, like one spotlighting Congressman Joe Barton's reliance on oil-industry contributions just hours after Barton apologized to BP for how it had been treated by the White House. It won't be long before CRP, Congress Watch and other groups churn out real-time contribution breakdowns within minutes of key votes useful information for voters and good fodder for lawmakers' opponents.
Dan Geldon is a staffer who worked for Elizabeth Warren as she pushed her idea for a consumer agency to regulate financial products. Propelled by her relentless and highly effective television appearances, her agency survived pretty much intact despite hurdles thrown in the way by legions of business lobbyists. It was a process that Geldon says was "shell-shocking." His solution is a tax on lobbying that would finance a new research arm of Congress, akin to an expanded version of the highly regarded Congressional Budget Office, that would provide unbiased advice on pending legislation to balance the lobbyists' input. Arkush, of Congress Watch, says his and like-minded groups have a more radical plan in the works. His idea, inspired by the January Supreme Court decision banning limits on corporate campaign contributions as a violation of First Amendment rights, is a constitutional amendment stripping for-profit corporations of First Amendment rights. Corporate political contributions could then be banned, as could the hiring of lobbyists. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein could hire a lobbyist with his own money, but Goldman couldn't. This might appeal not only to progressives like Arkush but also to Tea Party sympathizers and others frustrated with how our democracy has become a game for insiders.
But let's remember that New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court case that set the course for press protections from libel-law abuse, involved corporate speech (an ad in the Times). And however limited Congress's appetite for passing an amendment like this might be, it would also require the votes of three-quarters of the country's state legislatures, which are corporate-lobbying playgrounds that make Capitol Hill seem pristine.
Even if Arkush and his colleagues could make lightning strike, would we really want those mom-and-pop telephone-answering services prohibited from hiring Wenhold? Then again, whether it's the big banks or big oil, can we afford to keep the system we have, especially when we have to assume that the players with all the money will continue to double down on their investments in what may be Washington's only bargain? The idea of a representative democracy is that we elect smart, good people to decide issues like Volcker-rule carve-outs or who can trade derivatives with whose money that are too complex for the rest of us to decide directly. But when those issues are so complicated and when those representatives are so reliant on private interests not only for information but also for campaign money, that can't be a good bargain for the rest of us.
Here's a simpler idea that might keep Wenhold in business while tempering the influence of the heavier hitters. It would be combined with fuller, faster disclosure; more restrictions on the revolving door between members of Congress and their staffs and the lobbying firms; and something like Geldon's souped-up policy-research unit. And it doesn't require a pie-in-the-sky constitutional amendment. The Senate and House could adopt their own rule, as they have done regarding other ethics issues, prohibiting any member of Congress from accepting contributions from firms that lobby them. In other words, the lobbyists could continue to argue their cases, but they would have to stop contributing to the jury.
Lobbyists, who would save a ton of money and time now spent going to endless fundraisers, might even favor it. And it would be fun to read the white paper arguing against it.
Brill, a longtime journalist who founded The American Lawyer magazine, is a co-CEO of Journalism Online, which is enabling publishers to pursue strategies for charging for their online content