A Lesson in Transparent Lobbying

An online publication that will go unnamed and unlinked has accused Free Press of hypocrisy, claiming that as we criticize the Federal Communications Commission for secret meetings, we hide evidence of our own advocacy activity in violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The allegations are ludicrous on their face. For example, the author lists several visits to the FCC by one Free Press attorney – two in February 2009, one in March, one in May, and one in June – even though the attorney was not employed by Free Press until August of 2009. To take another example, one Free Press staffer is erroneously listed as having “visited” the FCC for filing a comment in an open FCC proceeding – an activity that involves no visit at all.

Even aside from these amateurish errors, the very logic of the accusation is puzzling. The author’s assertion is that Free Press is somehow being secretive and hiding evidence of activity – and uses as proof of that secrecy our publicly filed ex parte notices at the Commission. The author collected publicly available documents filed by Free Press to document our FCC activity, and used that information to assert that we are not being public about our FCC activity. The argument is self-contradicting.

But some amount of confusion is understandable. Lobbying rules are confusing, and there are two separate standards in place here. One is FCC-specific: the requirement that parties meeting with the agency file disclosures of those meetings through the FCC’s ex parte process. Free Press has long supported disclosure through the ex parte process, and we filed comments calling for greater enforcement and increased disclosure of conflicts of interest as part of ex parte reform.

The other standard comes from the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The LDA requires registered lobbyists to file periodic reports of lobbying activity at the legislative and executive branches of the government. Free Press has one registered lobbyist, who is in full compliance with those reports; the other named Free Press staffers – some attorneys, some researchers and some policy experts – are not registered lobbyists, and therefore do not file reports under the rules of the LDA.

Why aren’t more Free Press staff registered lobbyists? The rule says that a registered lobbyist is someone who has more than one lobbying contact in any three month period, and spends 20% or more of the person’s time engaged in lobbying activities. Some FCC officials are covered under the LDA, though, and meetings with these officials can qualify as “lobbying contact.” But the definitions of these terms are designed to exclude most of the other forms of activity engaged in by public participants in public government proceedings. Specifically, comments filed in FCC proceedings – the FCC activities for which Free Press staffers spend the vast majority of their time – are specifically, consciously and deliberately excluded from the definition of “lobbying activity” under federal law.

I could make other observations as well here, such as the difference between lobbyists whose job is to advance the parochial commercial goals of a business, and those few advocates employed by nonprofit organizations who try to do their best to put the public’s interest first. But those can wait for another day. And besides, I have some non-lobbying activity to do; those FCC comments won’t write themselves.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good