Innovative Ideas: An Online Forum For Lobbying

Fun fact of the day: For every Washington lobbyist representing a public interest group or union, there are 16 representing business interests.

The Brookings Institution has a novel proposal for dealing with the $3.5 billion lobbying industry: encourage more of it. In a new brief, Lee Drutman asserts that the problem isn’t lobbying itself, but that the current system gives an outsize voice to those with the most to spend. His solution? A comprehensive government-run online clearinghouse where any group or individual – from business lobbyists and public interest groups to academics and private citizens – can comment on proposed legislation and view the positions of others. In Drutman’s vision, Congressional representatives would require professional lobbyists to post to their positions on the site as a precondition for meeting face-to-face. If widely used, such a system could increase transparency and accountability in lobbying and lower the barrier for less wealthy groups and individuals to attempt to influence government policy.

While I think a central policymaking forum to which all interested parties contribute in a spirit of lively public debate would be a beautiful thing, it seems a bit pie-in-the-sky for our current political system. However, there are pieces of Drutman’s plan I believe we could realistically implement to great benefit:

(1) A streamlined, centralized system for constituents to communicate opinions to their representatives. Imagine if you could go to one website, select a proposed bill or issue, use a series of dropdown menus to articulate your opinion on the topic, add extra text comments if you like, and then hit a button to have your input sent to all your representatives. This kind of system would allow legislators to obtain richer data on their constituents’ perspectives more quickly and easily than under existing systems (90% of constituent feedback currently comes via email).

(2) An online clearinghouse that aggregates the public positions of key actors on proposed legislation. Industry groups, public interest organizations, think tanks and others frequently release statements of their positions on pending legislation, though these materials are scattered around the internet and often only the loudest or best-funded voices see their opinions make it into the media. A voluntary, NGO-operated site that collects position statements from any organization willing to publicly comment on a bill would be immensely helpful to legislators, their staff, journalists, and citizens, and might eventually morph into a system like the one Drutman proposes.

A Better Way to Fix Lobbying
The Brookings Institution // Lee Drutman // June 2011