A Philosopher's Blog

Proposal: Transparent Lobbying

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2011

Money talks...

While I recognize that lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic process, I also recognize that it provides an avenue by which various interests can exert undue influence in politics, often to the detriment of the general good.

I am not so foolish as to advocate banning lobbying. As I have noted, it does have a legitimate place in the process. Also it would almost certainly be all but impossible to get rid of the lobbying machinery. However, I do contend that the harmful aspects of lobbying can be reduced.

One serious problem with lobbying and its associated influence (such as corporations and other interests literally writing legislation) is that the lobbying activities are not transparent and made readily available to the public. As might be imagined, if lobbying activities were made readily available to the public, then this would have some influence on the nature of lobbying. At the very least we would know the prices at which our government is being bought and sold.

To this end I would propose that all lobbying activities involving public officials be made a matter of public record. This would include emails, meetings, letters, phone conversations, texts and so on. With today’s technology, it would be a simple matter to record meetings on video, to record phone conversations and so on. This information would the be posted on a site called lobbyist.gov. The main page for the site would have a link to individual pages for each member of congress. Each individual page would have a list of all the lobbyists who have lobbied the congressperson as well as links to records of all the lobbying. It would be mandated that the site be designed to be clearly and easily navigable so that the records could not be obscured or hidden. There would also be a large money counter for each congressperson which would track the amount of monetary value received from lobbyists and the interests they represent.

It might be objected that lobbyists have a right to secrecy. The obvious reply is that lobbyists might, but public officials do not. They are, after all, public officials. Hence, the interaction between the lobbyists and the public officials in their professional capacity would thus seem to be something that the people have a right to know about.

It might also be objected that some matters might fall under areas of legitimate secrecy, such as national security. Thus, any lobbyist who can claim this would have the right to lobby in secret. The obvious reply is that while dealings between congresspeople and certain interests (such as defense contractors) might legitimately involve secrecy, this would clearly not cover lobbying attempts. After all, while a defense contractor describing a top secret weapon would be a legitimate matter for secrecy, the process of lobbying congress to spend billions in public money on that contractor would not be a legitimate matter of secrecy.

I imagine that lobbyists would, of course, try to stuff as much secret lobbying as they could under the cloak of national security. However, this would still limit the illegitimate secrecy in substantial ways and the lobbying report should still include a report of secret lobbying that lists the name of the company and the fact that the lobbying activities were made secret for “national security” or whatever.  This secrecy should also be subject to independent review to try to reduce (however slightly) the inevitable abuse of the national security loophole.

The requirement for transparent lobbying would need to be backed up with penalties that would be sufficient to motivate lobbyists and congresspeople to follow the laws. After all, if the penalty was an ethical censure or a small fine, most congresspeople would simple break the rules relentlessly. One reasonable penalty is that violation of the transparency rules would result in the interest being served by the lobbyist(s) in question being banned from lobbying for an extended period of time and that the offending congressperson would also not be allowed to interact with lobbyists for a set amount of time per violation.

As might be imagined, opposing this sort of transparency is something both parties can agree on.

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13 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 5, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Professor. You are focusing on the minutia of political B.S, while America burns. The militarism and militarization of America is our one and only problem. Your political discussions, while interesting, are the equivalent of Medieval scholastics debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while their world is collapsing; of creating a detailed plan concerning how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic while the ship is sinking; of Nero fiddling while Rome burned; and of the Jewish Pharisees who were straining at gnats while swallowing camels shortly before their city and their temple were completely destroyed by the Romans.

    America is collapsing. Washington is morally and politically bankrupt. Military/intelligence might is all Washington has left. Washington has no intention of changing anything for the better, as you or I would define “better”. The only plans Washington now has is too turn “the military/intelligence screws” down even harder than ever before.

    Education is the way out of psychological denial. It’s also the way to break-through your paradigm paralysis:

    See: William F Engdahl – Arab Spring a western ploy to control Eurasia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJc13wkRO-M&feature=related

    See: Chalmers Johnson – Decline of Empires: The Signs of Decay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2CCs-x9q9U&feature=share

    • FRE said, on November 5, 2011 at 1:32 pm

      Certainly the militarization of American is a very serious problem. But, let us consider one of the factors that is causing the problem.

      It is in the interest of a number of American businesses for America to be heavily militarized. That’s not true only of American businesses which manufacture arms; it is also true of the companies which supply materials to arms manufacturers. Militarization is also encouraged by companies which import raw materials from foreign countries, such as oil and various minerals. Naturally these companies want to ensure that they continue to have access to these materials, and that, at least in some cases, motivates them to push for foreign policies which may require military action. To a significant degree, that drives our foreign policies. Even worse, American companies have sold arms to countries whose interests are sometimes opposed to ours and we end up in military conflicts against countries which we have armed; this is partly the result of lobbying activities by American arms manufacturers.

      So, in fact, there are private American businesses which endeavor to protect their interests by lobbying to encourage militarization, either directly or indirectly. Thus, making lobbying transparent and imposing limits on it would expedite dealing with excessive militarization.

      Moreover, it does not make sense to overlook some serious problems merely because there are other problems which are even more serious. If we did that, we would never get around to dealing with some problems.

      It may be that during the Gilded Age (roughly 1865 – 1900), lobbying was an even more serious problem than it is now. The Robber Barons and their agents would actually go to state legislatures and Congress with a suitcase full of money, sometimes in amounts exceeding $500,000 (when the dollar was worth about 10 times as much as it is now), to be used for bribes; it was very effective. They even bought judges. And, the lobbying was not done only by Americans; agents of foreign investors also lobbied and bribed our politicians. Lobbying activities may be somewhat less egregious now, but human nature tends to be invariant so there is every reason to believe that unethical lobbying activities continue to influence legislation in ways that are not in the best interest of our country and its citizens. Because of a lack of openness, we don’t even know how serious the problem is.

      Our attempts to deal with excessive militarization of America require that we deal with the corruption resulting from lobbying; they are not unrelated problems. No doubt the Professor and others whose knowledge and writing skill are superior to mine can expand on this and deal with possible objections to what I have written.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

        Interestingly, the Republican and former general Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the military industrial complex. Militarization is rather a problem for some of us (as FRE noted, it is great for some). Making a shift from this economic and political paradigm will be exceptionally difficult-perhaps so difficult that it will not occur. After all, there are strong vested interests who defend it and they have been rather successful in convincing people that any attack on militarization is an attack on America, a call to weakness, a betrayal of “our” interests, and (of course) weak minded socialism/communism.

        • magus71 said, on November 8, 2011 at 11:29 am

          I was just waiting for someone to throw out that Eisenhower quote.

          The numbers simply do not point to America being any more militarized than it has been in any other decade. In fact, it’s less militarized than in many other time periods.

          In fact, Forbes said that military spending as a percentage of GDP is at or near an all-time low. This statement was vetted by Pilitifact, which rated it as “Mostly True.”


          America has only 1.5 active military serviice members. That’s all of our services, incliding the Coast Guard, combined. That’s an extremely low number in historical terms.

          Mike, you should know better. But I know you’re always tempted to take a great stab in the dark at Gibsonian corporations.

          If we consider our current wars to be a sign or militarism, again, this fails the test. America has had many “small wars” (and make no mistake, Iraq and Afghanistan are small wars).

          You’re all wrong about this. America is less militaristic than ever. We just happen to be fighting two wars, which gives the illusion to those who want to see that illusion, that we are militaristic.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 8, 2011 at 5:21 pm

            We have a relatively small % of the population in the military, but military and security spending do take up a significant chunk of the budget. To paraphrase one wit, we are an insurance company with an army.

            I am fine with legitimate defense spending. To be unarmed is to ask for defeat. However, given the existing opposition we are spending too much. Part of the problem is that we are also picking up the defense tab for other countries, thus allowing them to spend more in other areas.

            Historically, the United States was always fairly lax at maintaining a military. For example,look at military expenditures prior to WWI and prior to WWII. After WWII we demobilized again, but the cold war got us into a state of what seems to be endless war (which enables the contractors to profit greatly).

            Our economic system does have to dispose of excess production and military expenditures have served well for this. However, it seems more sensible to put that production into more positive and useful things like energy, education and infrastructure.

    • magus71 said, on November 5, 2011 at 1:42 pm

      This isn’t any kind of conspiracy by Washington. Most of the reason America is declining is because its people are declining. I can only blame Washington so much. We’re getting dumber and we’re paying the price for what Robert Bork has brilliantly termed: “Militant Egalitarianism.”

      Essentially we can start with the elites. Soviet sociologists believed rightly that it is not the people, or masses, who guide a nation along its course, it is a nation’s elites. Look at our elites now. Hollywood for example. Where is the depth or thought or character coming from Hollywood. And yet I see Hollywood changing speech patterns and general behavior and perception about home and family life more than anything. Kids don’t care what the teacher or mom says, they care what is being said in a song or on TV. I’m not saying they haven’t always cared more about celebs, but celebs were not always what they are now.

      Then we can go to many of the colleges and see what some professors are teaching. The Soviet plants inside universities in the 50s and 60 were astoundingly effective. I’ve spoken with conservative professors who were practically driven out of their positions. When I say conservative, I mean places great value on family, doesn’t think communism is a good idea, and believes in American exceptionalism.

      The masses have followed the elites. I can only hope that Niall Ferguson is not correct when he says that most empires collapse suddenly, they generally do not decline gradually. Perhaps the one thing we have that other great empires didn;t have is two oceans on either side of us.

      • T. J. Babson said, on November 5, 2011 at 2:05 pm

        The problem is that the Democrats have decided that we need to become like Europe, while forgetting that the reason Europe can be like Europe is that the U.S. has borne the defense burden for the past 50 years.

        • magus71 said, on November 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

          What’s incredible is that Europe can’t even pay it’s bills with military budgets the size of what my neighbor’s kid makes from delivering newspapers.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 6, 2011 at 11:12 am

        The sudden collapse paradigm often seems to be the result of a need to put a date on a collapse. In the case of Rome, an analysis of the history shows a steady declined towards the dramatic sack of Rome. However, the Roman empire endured in many ways even after that (and, of course, the Eastern Empire lasted long after that).

        People have long been influenced by the lovers of sights and sounds-see, for example, Plato’s criticism of these folk as well as his call for banning the artists from the ideal state. That said, we also need to look that the other leaders-those in economics and politics.

        Most professors seem to be trying their best to provide quality education. However, the competent professor who teaches a solid class is not the sort of person who gets much (or any attention). People focus on the “stars” (who often seem to excel mainly at controversy and self-promotion) and also do point to the spectacular problems.

        I’ve never actually seen a professor harassed for conservative views, but my anecdotal experience is hardly evidence for or against.

        • magus71 said, on November 8, 2011 at 11:39 am

          Well, the Dark Ages ensued after Rome’s decline.

          Niall Ferguson does not try to put a date on it and does not say it is inevitable. He does say though that there are some very serious signs of American decline and that our greatest enemy is self-imposed: Debt. That debt will ineviably weaken America’s military (it already has) and as Ferguson says:

          “Having grown up in a declining empire, I do not recommend it,” Ferguson said. “It’s not a lot of fun, actually, decline. To be more serious, a world in which the United States is no longer predominate is not likely to be a better world, actually.”

          It is possible that America could find itself lashing out as it dies, but that seems to be for fiction writers at this point. Now Russia, that is another possibility entirely.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 6, 2011 at 11:01 am

      I have been considering that exact point, mainly while talking with a colleague of mine who is an expert on the French Revolution. One problem with history is that when you are in it, it is hard to see what is actually going on. It is, as you note, well worth considering that this could be collapse point-one that will be obvious 50 years from now when historians are talking about the fall of the American empire.

      • magus71 said, on November 8, 2011 at 11:41 am

        “it is hard to see what is actually going on. It is, as you note, well worth considering that this could be collapse point-one that will be obvious 50 years from now when historians are talking about the fall of the American empire.”

        Yes, exactly. The world is changing very quickly right now. My instincts tell me it won’t be a good thing, at least not for the next couple of decades.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 7, 2011 at 12:20 am

    Have you seen the 60 Minutes Jack Abramoff interview yet: See: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7387331n&tag=contentBody;storyMediaBox

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