Say you’re an executive of Big Widget Inc., a manufacturing company, and the California Legislature is considering a bill that would render the widgets you make obsolete.
You hire lobbyists to make the case to legislators that your widgets are crucial to the state’s economy and ought to be protected. But you want to pull out all the stops because there are other well-funded interests on the other side of the proposal. So, you hire another firm to launch an online campaign called Californians For Widgets, pretending to be a coalition of regular citizens and academics worried about the loss of widget manufacturing in the state. You hire people to set up social media accounts to undermine the claims of the legislation’s supporters. You appeal directly to voters through advertising and mailers. Maybe you even hire a well-known former politician to tout your position.
The rule change ... would make it harder for interests to hide their lobbying activities.
Under the current state rules, Big Widget must report the money it pays to lobby legislators directly and identify the firms it hires to do the lobbying. And it must report the total for “other spending to influence” — but not how it spends it. That allows Big Widget to hide its connection to the digital campaign it funded to influence lawmakers.
A proposal before the Fair Political Practices Commission Thursday would shine some light into this dark corner of the political world by requiring lobbyists, and the people and organizations that hire them, to itemize “other payments” of $2,500 and more. We urge the commission to adopt this rule change because, although the above scenario is hypothetical, the problem is real.
Special interests have increasingly used this catch-all category to limit disclosure of their lobbying efforts, making it near impossible for the average person to trace the nexus between them and an array of efforts to influence legislation. In 2014, nearly 70% of all lobbying money spent was reported under this category.
The rule change wouldn’t block this kind of spending, but it would make it harder for interests to hide their lobbying activities. Big Widget has the right to push its interests to lawmakers. But not to do it in secret.