On InsiderAdvantage.com: another way to look at defining lobbyists

8
Feb

On InsiderAdvantage.com: another way to look at defining lobbyists

An op-ed I wrote about defining lobbyists is posted at InsiderAdvantage.com behind the paywall. Here it is for free.

A Tale of Two Lobbies

At the first meeting of the Georgia State House committee addressing Speaker of the House David Ralston’s ethics reform proposal, a divide became apparent between the old guard of professional lobbyists and the rising force of citizen lobbyists led by Tea Party activists.

The stage was set when the first draft of the bill broadened the definition of lobbyist to include all individuals who “advocat[e] a position or agenda for the purpose of influencing the decision making of a public officer,“ and requires them to pay a fee and register as a lobbyist. Previously, registration was only required of individuals who are paid to lobby.

Influential grassroots activists such at the Tea Party and Georgia Conservatives in Action decried this as an attack on individuals’ rights to speak to public officials and claimed that the registration fee would unduly burden their exercise of protected political speech.

Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley put a finer point on the issue, arguing that the success of unpaid citizen-lobbyists like her upended the previous order and that the broader definition is retaliation against them In a way, the Tea Party became victims of their own success in pushing for lobbying reform

Subcommittee Chairman Rich Golick stated time and again that the intention of the definition is not to burden free speech, but to ensure that people who should be registered as lobbyists are registered. And that’s the crux of the problem: who should register as a lobbyist.

It’s a difficult problem, because there is no widespread agreement on who should register.

State Representative Edward Lindsey cross-examined William Perry, Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia, which allied with the Tea Party under the banner of the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform, about whether Perry’s organization paid a fine for late filing of a lobbyist expenditure report. Perry replied that Common Cause did not pay a late-filing fine, which Lindsey disputed; they’re both sort of right.

William Perry, a registered lobbyist, individually paid a fine for late filing, so it is technically true that his organization Common Cause did not. This highlights the fact that under current law, individuals are required to register as lobbyists, but there is no provision for registering organizations.

Much of the strength of Tea Party and similar citizen-lobbying groups come precisely from the degree to which they are organized, rather than their ability to spend money on lobbying and hire professionals to press their case.

Because of this, organizations that do not pay their representatives may currently lobby and do so effectively without registering, and the lack of registration and accounting causes tension with legislators and old guard professionals, see these volunteers exercising substantial influence and think they should register as lobbyists and make financial disclosures.

This difference points to a potential solution — rather than only registering individuals who are paid to lobby, we might create a second tier of registration for organizations comprising unpaid individuals, or individuals for whom a substantial portion of their work is not lobbying in the professional sense.

Thus the Tea Party or the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform might register as a lobbying organization, paying one fee that covers unpaid individuals, while leaving unconnected citizens free to lobby on their own behalf.

This also would provide a framework for accounting for group expenditures without requiring individuals members to publicly account for their parking or lunch money.

Rather than trying to shoehorn this new breed of unpaid citizen-lobbyists into an old definition of professionals, we should acknowledge that these organizations wield considerable influence and require them to register and disclose in a way that minimizes the financial burden on volunteer organizations and individuals, but provides both financial disclosure and transparency, and levels the playing field for all.

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