Cleaning Up This Town

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In his book This Town, journalist Mark Leibovich paints a compelling picture of corruption and greed in Washington. But as many critics — and commenters on our website — pointed out, for all its delightfully disgusting insider detail, the book is missing one important thing — solutions. For that, we turn to The Sunlight Foundation‘s Lisa Rosenberg. A registered lobbyist herself, Rosenberg advocates for greater transparency and accountability in government.

Lauren Feeney: Have you read This Town?

Lisa Rosenberg

Lisa Rosenberg: I’ve read parts of it. I have to admit, it’s a little bit like work for me [laughs]. But I’ve read some key chapters.

Feeney: And does any of it shock or surprise you?

Rosenberg: No. I’ve been working on issues involving money in politics for such a long time that there was nothing really surprising in there. It didn’t shock me in any way. But I think it’s great for the rest of the country, for people who have not been paying as close attention, to get a picture of what’s been happening. Outrage is good, and I think this might foster some outrage.

I guess what did surprise me, or maybe disappointed me, is that the book doesn’t seem to offer any solutions.

Feeney: That’s of course why I called. But before we get to solutions, can you review what’s so wrong with the picture painted in Leibovich’s book, of former politicians going on to make big bucks as lobbyists?

Rosenberg: When congressmen or staffers leave to go lobby, they cash in on the connections that they’ve made on Capitol Hill. They also cash in, very often, on the work they’ve done on the Hill, which sounds okay on the surface, but when it’s cashing in on the fact that, for example, they wrote a law so they know where all the loopholes are, and then they go lobby for somebody who can take advantage of those loopholes, then I think we have a real conflict of interest. I think that’s the real problem with the so-called “revolving door.”

Feeney: So what are some solutions to this problem?

Rosenberg: One of the most obvious solutions is a longer cooling off period before legislators can lobby. Right now, a House member can’t lobby for one year after leaving the House and a Senator can’t lobby for two years after leaving the Senate. But as you can imagine, the contacts, the ties, the influence are still really prevalent after one or two years. I don’t think that’s enough time to distance yourself. Also, if there were a longer cooling off period, it might not be as tempting for people to go directly from Capitol Hill to K Street, and they might find other sources of employment in the meantime that would be less troubling.

Sunlight also advocates for more lobbying disclosure. I don’t think that necessarily fixes the entire problem, but more transparency can only help. There are people who leave and go to K Street but don’t register as lobbyists — Chris Dodd, Newt Gingrich, Tom Daschle. These people have a lot more access and influence than most registered lobbyists, but they don’t have to register as lobbyists because of what we call the 20 percent loophole — if a lobbyist spends less than 20 percent of his or her time directly lobbying on behalf of any single client, then they don’t have to register and report. We think that that should be diminished greatly — or maybe there should be an automatic assumption that if you’re a former member of Congress and you’re working on behalf of a client, then you’re a lobbyist.

We also advocate for transparency and reporting of who lobbyists have actually met with. Right now, as a lobbyist, all I have to say is that I’ve lobbied the House, the Senate or the Executive Branch, which really doesn’t tell you very much. We think it’s really important to be able to connect the dots. If I’m holding a fundraiser, and my corporation or organization gives a lot of money to a member of Congress, and then you see that a lobbyist has met with that same member of Congress, then you can follow how that member of Congress voted on the issue and really connect the dots.

Feeney: How do you manage to legislate the legislators? Is there any hope of ever enacting any of these reforms when they are the ones who make the rules?

Rosenberg: I have to think there’s hope or I’d lose my mind. I think, honestly, reform may have to result from a scandal. That’s what the public responds to, for better or worse. Maybe a book like This Town will be the next impetus for reform, if enough outrage comes from it. As reformers, it’s our job to lay the groundwork and be prepared with good, solid legislative ideas ready to go when some scandal does happen.

Feeney: There’s another “revolving door” depicted in Leibovich’s book — between government and big media. Of course, the most important rule to the media is the First Amendment. Is there any way to close the revolving door between government and media without limiting freedom of speech?

Rosenberg: Well, it’s interesting. The First Amendment applies to lobbying as well — we have a right to petition the government. So if you can legislate a cooling off period for lobbying, maybe you can also legislate a cooling off period for the media. I don’t know, it’s not something Sunlight has really advocated for. Transparency would help of course. Right now the media serves as a filter, but when those who are reporting the information have spun through the revolving door, they may be biased interpreters of information. If, for example, government contracts were public, then you wouldn’t have to worry about who’s delivering the information about the contracts and whether or not they have some kind of vested interest, or their own slant or spin. We need a little more unvarnished information directly available to the public.

Feeney: What about some of the more abstract problems in the book, like the culture of greed in Washington? Can anything be done to change that?

Rosenberg: That’s a lot harder. I wonder sometimes if it’s a more fundamental problem with our country as a whole, that we’ve lost any sense of civic duty or belief in public service. Maybe we need more civics lessons in elementary school. Perhaps it’s linked to this whole idea of corporate personhood. I don’t think the Supreme Court did us any favors in Citizens United, giving corporations many of the same rights as individuals. The purpose of corporations is to make money. And I think that value system is permeating politics as well.

Feeney: Is there anything that regular people can do to help change the culture in Washington?

Rosenberg: They’re critical! The only thing that might be more influential to members of Congress than money is the threat of losing votes, losing their seat. People need to make it clear: “I am not going to vote for you again if you don’t support more transparency, or if you don’t represent my needs rather than the needs of some corporation.” Members of Congress need to know that voters are disgusted with money in politics, with the pay-to-play system that we have now, with the cronyism. People need to demand change.

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