Somebody Must Think We’re Stupid

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.

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11 responses to “Somebody Must Think We’re Stupid

  1. re: ” 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.”

    I guess the concept of billable hours is only for lawyers, eh?

    But to be honest – why should I care what one lobbyist does? What I want to know is how much Dominion or a Union spends in total – on lobbying and on what legislation.. the stats on the individuals.. you’ll have to convince me that I am missing something.

  2. If you want to know how much a company or union or association spends on lobbying, and on what legislation, then you are currently missing everything. The reporting process is designed to only make you think you are learning that, but you never will as things are structured now. Agreed, the stats on the individuals are of little importance – it is big picture that is being obscured. (And Dominion does list bill numbers and is probably more transparent than most, understandable given the spotlight.)

  3. and actually lobbying itself – I’m not afraid of having anyone make their organizations case to legislators… corporations, interest groups, enviros, unions, etc… Most people including legislators need to be “educated” so they can actually make an informed decision.

    AND I myself LIKE to hear their arguments… all sides…

    but where I draw the line is on the money given to legislators… that’s corrupting… no matter how it’s characterized… and stink of quid quo pro walks and talks like bribery… that’s what needs to go… I’m okay with the lobbying… we can’t keep people from talking to each other…anyhow..

    These guys go off to listen to ALEC every year, right? I mean heckfire… does the Sierra Club pay legislators to go on backpacking trips? NO!

    • Actually, in the past I’ve been aware of canoe trips, horseback rides, other outdoors activities put on for legislators and staff by activist groups. Don’t know about Sierra Club but I’m sure the bay advocates take legislators and others out on tours (and I’ve been on them myself). All of that is smart lobbying.

      I’m starting to suspect that you’ve figured out that I want these standards and rules to apply to your team as well as mine, Larry, and perhaps you don’t like that??

      • I really don’t have a “team”… I just do not like the money… and I’m fine with the lobbying… I’m okay with one day outings but not multi-day all food and lodging-covered gifts.

        Again – I don’t have a problem with Dominion or any other corporate – “lobbying”.. ditto for other interest groups.. across the spectrum.

        But I DO have a problem with the money… especially the way Virginia has loopholes out the wazoo for the reporting and use of.

  4. I find it odd that you understand the endless flow of dark money through the Virginia state government but somehow support Bob Goodlatte’s attempt to hand power for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay back to that same state government.

    “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.”

    I’ve been making similar points on this blog for years. However, until reforms are instituted I want more and more power taken away from our state government. Right now the General Assembly is for sale to the highest bidder and special interests are clearly outbidding “we the people”. You put all authority for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup back in the hands of the General Assembly and the Bay will be up for sale to BigAg faster than you can say “agricultural runoff”.

    The EPA may be inefficient, it may overreach but I don’t see it as corrupt. Virginia’s General Assembly is effectively the definition of legal corruption in America. How can you trust them with anything that can be sold to special interests? I’ll take the EPA over our corrupt General Assembly all day, every day.

  5. Point to where I said I agreed with Goodlatte. I merely found your post lacking in enough information to determine whom I agreed with, and filled in my own supposition of the other POV. I indicated all along I was more inclined to agree with Whitman.

    • It’s incumbent on Goodlatte to explain why he wants to reverse a successful program while a bipartisan majority of his colleagues from Virginia in Congress oppose that reversal. Feel free to try an internet search to see if you can find Goodlatte’s explanation for his end of career amendment. All I can find is article after article from the Daily Press, Baltimore Sun, Fredricksburg.com, Newsleader, etc opposing Goodlatte’s action.

      As for you – if you really believe that special interests pervade our state government isn’t that reason enough to want federal checks on that government? Given that they obviously won’t reform themselves don’t you think somebody ought to keep an eye on them?

      • I don’t think Goodlatte’s amendment poked out anybody’s eye and scrutiny will continue. You didn’t even report what happened to that language on the Senate side, or if it made it to the final bill. Yes, this is a great example of a situation where under Virginia’s lax reporting, a big industry could pressure the Governor or the DEQ or push for a key appointment to the oversight board and we’d never see it disclosed. Is a regulation an executive order? The law only mentions disclosure of lobbying on executive orders. Does that mean I think DEQ is corrupt or incompetent or eager to pollute the bay? No, I don’t.

        • You still don’t get it. I can’t tell if you can’t understand the issue or just want to turn a blind eye to your former buddy. Goodlatte is no longer accountable. He has decided to retire and will not face re-election. In the last 6 months of his political career he has no business proposing legislation that is not supported by the Virginia Congressional delegation. He especially has no business putting forth such legislation without a clear and public description of why he thinks that legislation is good for his district, Virginia and America.

          You naive belief that everything will be hunkey-dory was proven wrong over 31 years of failed state run efforts to clean up the Bay. The DEQ will fail as it failed in the past. They will simply point at other states and say, “they suck worse than we suck so everything is fine”. How you can defend returning to a failed policy from the past is beyond me.

          The issue of what the Senate will do with this bill is irrelevant. The issue was always about Goodlatte and his unacceptable behavior. He is trying a last minute Hail Mary to put BigAg ahead of the people of Virginia and it tarnishes his already sketchy reputation.

          After he retires perhaps Goodlatte will get a seat on the board of directors of Archer Daniels Midland or some other BigAg enterprise for his cowardly approach of selling out Virginia without having to face the electorate after the sell out.

          His actions are indefensible. He could have had one of his 3 pals who support the bill put the amendment forward. Dave Brat perhaps. Of course Dave Brat would have been pilloried by his constituents for such an asinine act. So, better to let the retiring guy sell out Virginia.

          Like I said in my article – Bob Goodlatte represents everything that is wrong with the GOP. Goodbye and good riddance.

  6. The thing about Goodlatte and many of his fellow GOP is elected should represent those who elect them and the GOP clearly hew more to their own personal philosophies rather than true representation of their constituents.

    Take the Chesapeake Bay. Clearly the larger public supports the Bay (as well as things like coal ash cleanup, and others)… but the GOP/Conservatives fundamentally do not – they consider these things to be “costly” and not really the job of the Federal govt but instead whatever the States want – as Steve articulated.

    The problem is with pollution is that is goes across state lines – and for many years before the EPA was created – companies would play the states off against each other on water and air standards. The state that had the weakest standards got the businesses… and the states with the strongest standards did not. So, for instance – the Potomac river was full of crap before it ever got to the Bay…Ditto with the Susquehanna which provides 1/2 of the Bay’s water. Most of the GOP was happy to let it be that way and Goodlatte still represents THAT philosophy rather than what his constituents want.

    And he has managed to hold on to his seat by basically diverting attention from that and claiming other things he has done to support rural Va..but even that is suspect since he does not support affordable health care for his rural folks either.

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