David Poole and his team at VPAP have provided another illustration of how the reporting requirements placed on lobbyists at the state Capitol are intentionally vague and useless. The chart above deals with the reports on lobbyist compensation.
This is usually the figure at the heart of the occasional stories about the amount spent by an individual company, or the gross amount spent on lobbying by all who file these forms. But in practice almost nobody reports in full what they are paid, and they of course do things other than lobbying with their time. So they pro-rate their fee and salary and report only a portion of it.
Who draws the line? Who picks the formula for pro-rating the time? The lobbyist or the principal do so for themselves and are never asked to report their rationale. That’s why comparisons are impossible – some report 5 percent and some 100. Partly there is the natural reluctance everybody has to reveal their income, but there is also a reluctance to stand out as a big spender on charts like those produced by VPAP or in a news story.
A Peek Inside the Process
Years ago, one of the best lobbyists I ever worked with, a fine lawyer, instructed me that only the time I spent talking or writing to a legislative or executive branch official about a specific bill or vote was lobbying. The time I spent researching the issue, drafting legislation or talking points, driving to the meeting, sitting in the anteroom – none of those hours, the bulk of the time, constituted lobbying. The ten or fifteen minutes in the room, that was the only actual lobbying.
This all flows back to the very narrow definition of lobbying in Virginia law, which does not get into indirect lobbying or grassroots lobbying or lobbying preparation, all things that come up when companies are deciding what is and isn’t lobbying for federal tax compliance purposes. This situation is too ridiculous to be accident or oversight, and extremely convenient for both the lobbyists and the lobbied.
Compensation is not that relevant. What matters far more, the real glaring gap in the reports, are the details about what specific subject matters, bills, budget amendments, gubernatorial appointments or procurement decisions are being influenced. The shameful gaps in the reports include loopholes that allow expensive dinners, gifts or entertainment to be given with no recipients named, or money to shuffle between various entities under the guise of some unregistered coalition.
Also, the full extent of grassroots or indirect efforts needs to be revealed. More and more issues now spark television, direct mail, phone bank and other campaign style communications efforts, and every dime spent on those should be just as transparent as if they were being spent on a candidate.
One area where compensation should be reported in full is when the client is the government. Beyond that, we need to focus on those other more important failings in the current non-disclosure disclosure regime, although this contribution by VPAP is useful in demonstrating that somebody out there thinks we’re stupid.