Never Waste a Good Scandal

A leading spokesperson for the lobbying reform community predicts the 2016 election will galvanize fresh anti-corruption initiatives.

Craig Holman, Ph.D., Government Affairs Lobbyist for the advocacy group Public Citizen was on the job when the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal broke in 2005. He went on to play a major role in the legislation assembled in the scandal’s wake, 2007’s amendment to the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act or LOGA. Suffice to say Holman was feeling déjà vu all over again when I sat down with him recently.

First though, a brief thumbnail on the early evolution of partisan and special interests in America might assist the reader.

Our nation’s disdain for special interests and partisan democracy is a longstanding one with evidence of it stretching back to at least the Hamilton-Madison Federalist Papers. Neither man relished splintering the nation’s political business along partisan lines. Yet ironically (or inevitably), both would go on to become leading voices in America’s first two parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

Why this sharp retreat from stated principle? As it turned out, an airless confab of powdered-wig wise men could not unitarily advance the business of the Republic. Compromise and imprecision are after all the nature of the democratic beast. If you want Amtrak to run on time, vote the fascist ticket.

Venturing beyond political parties, lobbying encapsulates an even finer-grained atomization of the nation’s business. Indeed to many, the very word itself is a pejorative dead-stop. Why must the People’s general interest be served up on special platters by guys in expensive suits? For that matter, why can’t the average citizen afford one of those suits?

Though sympathetic to the public’s aversion to the term, Holman employs it openly (as evidenced by his title and business card). In fact he’s one of the few lobbyists who wears the appellation unabashedly on his sleeve. Public Citizen is a well-advertised force in the lobbying business, but with a unique twist as it champions the general interest, or what one might reasonably call the undivided interests of ‘The People’. A paradox perhaps? In certain ways, PC’s self-referential efforts represent the very antithesis of lobbying. After all, what other lobbying group lobbies to disclose and regulate lobbying activities?

The following is an excerpt from my wide-ranging interview with Holman. More will appear in subsequent installments.

Norm Ball: Thanks for spending some time with us, Craig. Speaking of time, you’ve suggested we may be overdue for a fresh batch of lurid headlines along the lines of the 2005 Abramoff scandal.

Craig Holman: Yes Norm, I believe so. Take a look at how the 2016 election is shaping up. We’re facing the most expensive and messiest election ever. In fact I believe Americans are going to be so angry post-election that we’ll have an environment once again ripe for really strong reforms across the board: campaign finance, lobbying and ethics. As for lobbying reform, it operates cyclically and the spotlight is, in my opinion, swinging back into view. In all likelihood, it’ll take a villain to get the reform ball rolling and to really galvanize public outrage. But I have little doubt we’re on the verge of achieving that critical mass again. Until that time, my job is essentially to play defense.

NB: So this interview is timely, if a bit anticipatory. Better early than late. By the way, we should add that you and Jack Abramoff are now acquaintances and occasional colleagues and that Jack has gone on to become a potent force in the anti-corruption movement. (He blogs occasionally at The Republic Report.)

holmanCH: Yes indeed. Jack has since become a good friend and colleague. And I know he would agree that the massive amounts of money the system’s dealing with in the current environment all but assures another epic corruption scandal. The fact is, bad guys are the lubricant to lobbying reform. On the heels of the Abramoff scandal, for example, Congress was literally embarrassed into doing the right thing.

At first, the Republican leadership felt the issue was fading in the public’s mind. However the 2006 election exit polls surprised everyone. As it turned out, lobbying reform was the number one issue for voters. In fact both houses swung over to the Democrats. Despite the rather weak post-Abramoff (and pre-election) lobbying reform bill dying in conference committee (a bill so weak, by the way, that even we in the reform community couldn’t get behind it), incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid revived the issue, making it his top priority.

NB: What is lobbying exactly, and is the average person right to recoil from the mere mention of the word?

CH: The value that lobbying has to offer is the imparting of knowledge and expertise to members of Congress and their staffs. Each Congressman has his or her own narrow field of interest. They can’t know everything. Thus the ‘good role’ of lobbying is to provide them with the information needed to draft effective legislation. So there is this constructive element. But there is also a huge destructive element. What the K Street lobbying community runs on is the realization that, if the money is there, the expertise becomes incidental. So we’re talking about influence-buying decoupled from legislative merit.

NB: Sounds like grounds for great wells of cynicism.

CH: Actually, while Public Citizen does not have the money to compete in the wining and dining sweepstakes, we win more often than you might think. Of course we have to pick our fights. However we can and do beat the money, often when it matters most. We do this by actively engaging and mobilizing the public. We’re fortunate to have built up a wellspring of credibility over the years both with the public and the press. Through a combination of press support, academic research and our own in-house reports, our footprint is both wide and effective. Politicians pay attention to two things: money and constituent complaints. Our job is to galvanize the latter.

NB: Moving to 2007’s Honest Leadership and Open Government Act or LOGA, there are many facets to the Act, including extensions of the cooling-off period to help slow the public-private revolving door, tightened gift and travel rules, etc. But one distinct tonal shift from the predecessor 1995 Act is a heightened focus on ethics.

CH: Yes. One of the things we accomplished with LOGA was to impose ethics restrictions on lobbyists. There had never been that before. Prior to LOGA, the LDA simply had a disclosure law. There were no explicit restrictions on gifts, travel, etc. We even put in LOGA holding lobbyists legally liable for encouraging a member of Congress to violate one of these ethics rules. So, lobbyists are actually criminally liable now for some of these ethics transgressions.

NB: So a member of Congress or his/her staff can become legally implicated in lobbyist malfeasance? It seems LOGA really added teeth to the whole disclosure process.

CH: Absolutely. Then we took it a step further and got President Obama to issue his Ethics Executive Order the very first day he assumed office (Executive Order 13490 Jan. 21, 2009: Prescribing Standards of Ethical Conduct for Government Officers and Employees) which also imposed restrictions on lobbyists and did not welcome them into the new Administration. With the imposition of those new requirements, some folks who wanted to become part of the Administration de-registered as lobbyists.

NB: Hmm, so the Obama era unwittingly ushered in tactical de-registration. Talk about unintended consequences. When you add these folks to the business development ‘un-lobbyists’ schmoozing around town, shadiness seems to be on the loose. I should note here spokesman William Miller of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia pointed out recently that “illegally unregistered lobbyists aren’t outside the purview” of the LOGA either.

CH: That’s correct. Though I would add the anticipated swell of de-registered lobbyists was overstated. Have you heard the Caribou Coffee story?

NB: No I haven’t. But I’ll take a latte if you’re asking.

CH: The Obama Ethics Executive Order had the effect of compelling White House staff to meet lobbyists in an adjacent Caribou Coffee Shop. Thus lobbying was not curtailed within the Administration, but merely driven underground, or at least across the street. Remember, it’s tough to get into the White House. Every time you go there, you’ve got to get a security clearance. There’s also a record of your visit. So now you have K Street saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get rid of these ethics rules because they solve nothing and we’re getting fat on high-priced pastries.’

NB: (Laughs) I always suspected ethics was the leading cause of bad diets. I’d imagine the PR disaster for any client-firm caught employing unregistered lobbyists could be significant. It makes you wonder why they would risk jeopardizing their legislative agendas not to mention exposing unsuspecting Congressmen to ethics breaches.

CH: Well they shouldn’t risk such a thing. Take ADM for instance. One of our lobbyists here, Tyson Slocum, kept bumping into ADM people at various meetings. Curious to see how much they were spending, he decided to look up their registration reports only to discover they were not registered at all! So he called the ADM office out here which has a sizable staff, not to mention zero evidence of tractors or other direct farming implements in the parking lot…

NB: Good catch! Agriculture is a de minimus segment of the Beltway economy…

CH: …and he asks, ‘why aren’t you registered?’ To which the head guy replies, ‘sorry, we didn’t realize we had to.’ In essence, we had caught them red-handed. Clearly they knew we were going to go public and wanted to avoid the inevitable embarrassment. They registered in short order. So there are ways of compelling registration short of initiating a DOJ referral or alerting the Secretary of the Senate or Clerk of the House.

NB: Alas, I’m no stranger to the carpetbaggers myself. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt either to alert the relevant congressional offices to any roaming charlatans. What are the hurdles to requiring registration as a lobbyist?

CH: Under LOGA, there are three. One, you must make more than one lobbying contact. Two, you must receive at least $2,500 in compensation over a three-month period and three, if you spend 20% or more of your time doing lobbying for one client; in other words, you cross the threshold for being registered if all three criteria are met.

NB: Would it be fair to suspect ADM was ‘intentionally in error’?

CH: I wouldn’t argue with that.

NB: So, un-lobbyists trolling the halls of Congress can potentially implicate elected officials and their staffs in ethics violations, not to mention embroiling their clients in potential illegality as well?

CH: That’s correct.

NB: What are the penalties?

CH: LOGA increased the penalties for violations of the Lobby Disclosure Act from $50,000 to $200,000 and imposed a criminal penalty of up to five years for knowingly and willfully failing to comply with the Act.

NB: LOGA extends the lookback provision, requiring a lobbyist to disclose any previous executive branch or congressional employment within the last 20 years on his or her LDA reports. Previously, the lookback period was only two years. I would presume this applies both to paid government consulting as well as direct government employment?

CH: I can’t say for sure. But that would make sense.

NB: I’ve heard that sometimes they let you out of the country to travel abroad, Craig. In your article ‘Lobbying and Transparency: A Comparative Analysis of Regulatory Reform’ (C. Holman and W Luneburg; Interest Groups & Advocacy; ©2012 Macmillan Publishers Ltd.), you compare the evolution of the American and European lobbying registration systems, and suggest Europe (Brussels primarily) is evolving towards the transparency model long embraced in America and Canada.

The very notion of unregistered lobbyists evokes images of opacity more than it does transparency—and that’s before demonstrable corruption even enters the picture. As you say: “even the appearance of corruption that might otherwise erode public confidence in the integrity of government decision making” must be strenuously avoided.

CH: I’ve testified before the European Parliament and the European Commission a half-dozen times as part of a broader effort to set up a lobbying disclosure system over there. It’s quite fascinating. The Europeans use what’s called a hall pass system. Essentially you register once and have access to all the members’ offices. Such a system is anathema to transparency and disclosure. I finally realized the European hall pass system is set up to encourage corruption, not to deter it. Special access and secretiveness are the implicit goals!

In fact the first time I was testifying before the members, I was relating the Jack Abramoff affair. After the hearing, a commission member came up to me and said, ‘You know Craig, I understand that you have a problem in America with people like Jack Abramoff. However this is Brussels and we don’t have any Jack Abramoff’s’. It was all I could do to keep from bursting out laughing. But I caught myself and came back I thought with a pretty good answer: ‘Well sir, it may be that your lobbyists are more virtuous than ours, though that seems highly improbable. But as every major American lobby shop has a shop in Brussels, don’t you want to know what we’re doing here?’ Shortly after that episode they had the big Favors for Cash scandal. That sort of torpedoed any illusion of transatlantic ethical superiority.

NB: In the ‘Lobbying and Transparency’ paper, you offer another surprising insight: “In the United States and Brussels and across Europe as a whole, lobbyists overwhelmingly favor creation of a lobbyist registry and applaud transparency of their work. The greatest presumed obstacle to the regulation of lobbying—lobbyists themselves fighting tooth-and-nail against such regulation—is largely a myth.”

CH: Exactly. The resistance to transparency is more popular stereotype than empirical truth. Like folks in many professions, lobbyists are keen to see professional standards enforced and upheld within their ranks. They are decent people for the most part, populated of course with the proverbial ‘few bad eggs’ that you’ll find in any profession.

Since we’ve brought up vox populi, let me amplify that while money usually wins in politics, politicians still get scared when the people are truly aroused. One need only look to the 2006 election which blindsided many seasoned politicos. Provided they don’t succumb to cynicism and apathy, the people retain a lot of power. We should never forget that.

NB: Well Craig, it’s been a fascinating interview of which this installment barely scratches the surface. Your enthusiasm and exuberance from right here in the belly of the Beltway beast helps counteract the dark cynicism that grips many of us out in the hinterlands. May I say I hope you’re right? We’ll keep your prognostications in mind as we blunder ahead into the Presidential election cycle. Care to leave us with some final thoughts?

CH: Thank you for the opportunity to spread the word about what we’re up to here at Public Citizen. I believe in lobbying. The First Amendment allows us to petition our government for the redress of grievances. It’s a very wise provision that frankly captures the essence of what good lobbying strives to accomplish.

What I also know is that the public gets angry at peak moments when it counts. When the public steps up to retake the ball, we will be able to strengthen and re-establish some of the more meaningful reforms. The problem is not lobbying per se. The problem is money in politics. Left unchecked, the undue influence of money will kill democracy as we know it. And unless Americans are willing to give up their democracy, which I don’t believe we are, things are going to change.

UPDATED from “Hamilton-Jefferson” to “Hamilton-Madison,” 27 July 2015.

Norman Ball can be reached at Visit his blog Full-Spectum Domino to keep abreast. An excerpt of his latest book Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments is available at the Museum of American Poetics (MAP). He also has an eBook out on the impending currency reset Eye Am Eye Press, 2015. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Norman.