When the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) was enacted last year, supporters proclaimed that the law - which required more frequent disclosures of lobbying activities, new disclosure on lobbyists’ political contributions and a ban on gifts from lobbyists to congressional employees – would reveal the ties between lobbyists and Members of Congress due to increased transparency.
To determine the impact of HLOGA on the lobbying community, Lobbyists.info recently surveyed government relations professionals who are listed in Washington Representatives. We asked several questions on how HLOGA affected their recordkeeping systems, daily lobbying activities and various other activities. We also asked specific questions regarding their experiences in completing the LD-203 and what important adjustments they made to ensure compliance with the House and Senate gift rules.
The results, in summary, are the following:
- The day-to-day activities lobbyists carried out in their jobs were not impacted
- Hosting and participating in certain events were most impacted by HLOGA
- Lobbyists who did not have recordkeeping systems in place before September 2007 were likely to have implemented a system in response to HLOGA
- Half of the respondents reported that knowing what information to disclose was the biggest problem they faced in completing the LD-203
- Half of the respondents reported spending more than 15 hours in the past year on ethics or compliance training for HLOGA
- After a year, lobbyists still want further training and clarification on HLOGA
Each of these points will be presented in greater detail below.
As an introduction, the below chart serves as a summary of the amount of impact that lobbyists felt HLOGA had on general aspects of their jobs. First, we would like to describe the reasoning behind the interest of each measure:
- Recordkeeping – due to HLOGA’s mandate for the Government Accountability Office to begin auditing reports filed by lobbyists. Prior to the survey, we hypothesized that the law would have a major impact on recordkeeping.
- Registering or terminating as a lobbyist – due to changes in income/expenditure limits made by HLOGA and the requirement that only registered lobbyists file the LD-203. We hypothesized that the law would have a slight impact on this.
- Political contributions – due to the requirement of disclosure of political contributions on the LD-203. We hypothesized that HLOGA would have a slight impact on contributions.
- Interactions with congressional Members and staff – due to the “gift ban,” which prohibited gifts from lobbyists to congressional Members and staff. We hypothesized that HLOGA would have some impact on these interactions.
- Ethics training – due to the mandate in HLOGA that lobbyists needed to certify that they did not violate the House and Senate ethics rules, in addition to the newly-crafted gift ban. We hypothesized that the law would have a major impact on ethics training; many questions at various seminars were asked on the topics of paying for meals and giving gifts permissibly.
Lobbyists were asked to describe how much more or less they participated in various daily activities that are essential to performing their jobs. More than 75 percent of respondents said that the amount of face-to-face meetings with congressional Members and staff did not change in the past year, while 85 percent reported no change in the frequency of contacts with congressional Members and staff by phone and email. Even though the increased disclosure requirements might have resulted in more involvement in grassroots activity, 81 percent of respondents reported the same amount of involvement in grassroots activities in the past year, as compared to before the implementation of HLOGA.
HLOGA expanded the criteria by which coalitions and associations were required to disclose any member organizations that significantly contributed to planning their lobbying activities. While the National Association of Manufacturers claimed that organizations would be less likely to be involved with associations and coalitions if their affiliation with certain political positions were disclosed, this did not seem to impact lobbyists. The number of lobbyists who reported less involvement in coalitions as opposed to more involvement in coalitions was the same. Additionally, 85 percent reported the same amount of involvement in coalitions in the past year as they did prior to HLOGA.
Two activities were impacted by HLOGA’s enactment, however – 40 percent of respondents reported less involvement in hosting events at their offices where a covered official may attend, and 28 percent reported less participation in fundraising events.
Lobbyists may have hosted fewer events at their facilities for several reasons. One lobbyist submitted the following comment:
- “There appears to be an increased reluctance to accept invitations to be guest speakers, either because of potential adverse publicity, or simply the added procedural steps for vetting the event with the respective ethics offices.”
The gift ban may have also impacted the willingness of Members and staff to be speakers at events in a different way – transportation. In seminars held shortly after HLOGA’s enactment, lobbyists asked several questions on their ability to give rides to Members or pay for their taxi fare. As both are perceived to be a “thing of value,” many organizations involved in lobbying may have held off on providing transportation to their offices for events.
Lastly, initial guidance issued by the House and Senate regarding the filing of the LD-203 may have impacted a lobbying registrant’s willingness to host an event involving covered officials. The first round of guidance released in May included various examples of events and the types of information that would require disclosure of an event’s associated costs. One of these examples suggested that payments made by a registered lobbyist or lobbying entity toward an event where a covered official was listed on an invitation as a speaker would trigger disclosure on the LD-203. Several organizations found this interpretation to be misguided, and the guidance was later revised to state that events where a covered official was speaking would not necessarily trigger reporting based on that fact alone. However, for those who planned such events, the potential disclosure on the LD-203 may have been too much of a burden to allow a covered official to speak at an event their organizations would sponsor.
There was an overriding consensus by watchdog groups, the media, and even some lobbyists that forgoing the practice of paying for meals and giving gifts would force lobbyists to grab the ears of congressional Members at fundraising events. However, based on the responses to the survey, this does not necessarily seem to be the case. Nearly 57 percent of respondents believed that political contributions have not been impacted or were impacted very slightly due to HLOGA. At the same time, 28 percent of respondents reported less participation in fundraising events, while 12 percent reported more.
Of those respondents who stated that HLOGA had a major impact on political contributions, a majority also professed less or the same amount of participation in fundraising events in the past year compared to before the enactment of the law. It would seem that the biggest influences on decreasing participation in fundraising events were the disclosure of contributions on the LD-203 and the requirement for certain political action committees to disclose lobbyists who bundle more than $15,000 for them.
Tracking Contributions and Lobbying Activities – Recordkeeping
In addition to what appears to be a retreat from attending political fundraisers or hosting events due to perceived ties between lawmakers and lobbyists, some lobbyists have expressed their disdain for the new disclosure of political contributions by refusing to contribute at all. One lobbyist stated: “I will no longer contribute to campaigns or candidates in such amounts that ‘trip’ the HLOGA reporting requirements. It is too much hassle to keep track of the contributions.”
However, regardless of whether or not they contributed, this did not keep lobbyists from implementing contribution tracking systems to ensure that their reports were accurate. Of the 41 percent of respondents who reported a large impact of HLOGA on recordkeeping, many had either made significant changes to recordkeeping systems for lobbying activities and contributions that existed prior to HLOGA or implemented systems which they did not have before the law was passed. Based on the responses, 80 percent of those who only had contribution-tracking systems in place put a system in place that tracked lobbying activities, while 85 percent of those who only had a system in place to track lobbying activities began tracking their political contributions. In cases where there was no system in place to track either contributions or lobbying activities, nearly half implemented both systems while a small percentage put into place just a system to track contributions.
Further, of the 27 respondents with both lobbying activity and contribution tracking systems in place prior to HLOGA’s enactment who reported that the law had, at most, some impact on recordkeeping, 23 stated that no significant changes to those systems were made. Also, those who had only one system implemented were likely to implement the other system, regardless of how much impact they claimed HLOGA had on recordkeeping. Thus, as seen in the graphs below, the percentage of respondents who had both kinds of recordkeeping systems in place increased from less than 50 percent to more than 75 percent.
Generally, people were slightly ambivalent regarding their LD-203 filings. Nearly 30 percent of respondents said that they felt their first experience in filing this form in July was neither good nor bad. An additional 30 percent stated that their experience was somewhat good. Of those respondents who felt their experience filing the LD-203 was at least positive (43 percent), their biggest concern was making sure they were filing accurate information. On the other hand, those who responded that their experience in filing the LD-203 was at least somewhat negative (27 percent) stated that their biggest concern was understanding what information they needed to disclose.
As mentioned above, the initial guidance for the LD-203 was not released until May, nine months after the enactment of HLOGA, for a form due at the end of July. Almost immediately after the guidance was issued, reaction centered on a misinterpretation of HLOGA by the office of the Senate Secretary, culminating with labor groups taking their case to the House and Senate for a revision of the LDA guidance due to the potential reporting burdens. Revised guidance was issued two weeks prior to the July 30 due date for the first LD-203.
These actions most likely contributed to the finding that 51 percent of respondents found that the biggest challenge in the LD-203 process was knowing what information to disclose. The below graph shows the percentage of lobbyists who found a particular aspect of the LD-203 to be the most challenging.
Although lobbyists generally spent the same amount of time participating in lobbying activities, many also squeezed in a large amount of time for ethics training. 37 percent of respondents stated that HLOGA created a huge impact on ethics training at their organizations. Of that group of respondents, more than half spent 21 hours or more in training on HLOGA, while an additional 27 percent spent between 16 and 20 hours in training on HLOGA.
Overall, 30 percent of respondents reported that they spent more than 20 hours in the past year learning about the various provisions of HLOGA. The below graph shows the breakdown of the time lobbyists spent on training.
Despite this large amount of training in the past year, respondents stated that they desired more of this information. Lobbyists generally wanted information on general HLOGA compliance, ethics and gift rule compliance, and recordkeeping, mostly in tandem. Despite the concerns about the LD-203, 11 percent of respondents were interested in more information on filing the LD-203, by far the lowest.
In addition to responding to the various questions asked by lobbyists, the survey allowed for free response to expand on points not covered in those questions. Several respondents detailed their concerns regarding the condensed deadline for filing the LD-2. Prior to HLOGA, lobbying entities had 45 days after the end of what was a semiannual reporting period to file their statements of lobbying income or expenditures. HLOGA amended this, requiring the LD-2 to be filed 20 days after the end of a quarterly reporting period. Two respondents specifically stated that it would be much easier to have the reports due 30 days after the end of the reporting period:
- “There is not enough time from the close of the last month of the quarter to reporting on the 20th of next month to collect FINAL numbers for fees and costs billed during that quarter. We could file preliminary numbers and then file a correction, or use the figures from one month in the quarter before, but both are bad choices.”
- “The 20 day window to file the LD-2 report is too tight.”
Several respondents also noted that the rules of the House and Senate that banned gifts from lobbyists to congressional Members and staff were difficult to navigate because the Members and staffers were not completely aware of the rules. Two respondents noted that they had to explain to staffers that as lobbyists, they could not give them anything. Additionally, other respondents reported that the gift ban did influence their social interactions, as one person reported that a problem was “not being able to socialize with friends on the Hill without having to worry about whether or not we were violating the law just to have a lunch or dinner.”
Although lobbyists did have to adjust with the new reporting requirements and the mandate prohibiting gifts to congressional Members and staff, some wondered why HLOGA was put into place. Several people noted that the law’s intent to increase the transparency of lobbying only caused more headaches for lobbyists.
- “It’s a lot of paperwork and not much return for those who complied with the prior law [ed. note: Lobbying Disclosure Act] to begin with.”
- “It violates the first amendment right to petition the government without hindrance. The provisions are overly vague and subjective on registration. Private philanthropy should not have to be reported.”
- “HLOGA was overkill driven by the press and elected officials.”
Lastly, several lobbyists took the time to comment on the hostility that they have been facing by the public and politicians, most notably the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama. Obama specifically has spoken out against the influence of corporate lobbying, most recently with the crisis of the financial markets.
- “I also find it offensive that people who work for non-profit advocacy groups are lumped in with corporate lobbyists. Many people who work for ‘cause’ organizations do so as an extension of their personal beliefs and value systems. We are being treated as pariahs in order to get at the Jack Abramoffs of the world.”
- “It is time to treat ALL special interests alike, not just someone else’s special interest. The rules should apply to everyone equally.”
Craig Holman of Public Citizen described HLOGA as a “sea change” for the lobbying community, yet besides increasing the use of recordkeeping systems and training, the law did not have much impact on a lobbyist’s job. Although a majority of lobbyists reported the same amount of participation in all of the activities we prompted them on, significantly less participation was reported for hosting events at an organization’s facilities with the attendance of a covered official and for fundraising events. With all of the attention on the LD-203 in July, only 27 percent of lobbyists found the experience to be bad, mainly because of the lack of guidance on what to disclose. With one year of HLOGA under every lobbyist’s belt, many have become accustomed to the changes made by the law, and are working to comply with it.