Policy Solution

Strengthening the Lobbying Disclosure Act

To better reflect what lobbying looks like in 2020, Congress must update the law to make the influence industry more transparent.


The problem:

The right to lobby the government is enshrined in the First Amendment’s guarantee that the people can petition their government for their redress of grievances.

But Congress can define and refine what qualifies as lobbying and who should register as a lobbyist, as it did in the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). The bill notes, “Responsible representative Government requires public awareness of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence the public decision-making process in both the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government.” Although federal lobbying disclosure laws have repeatedly been challenged in court over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that the right to lobby is not infringed upon by disclosure requirements, and that such requirements help protect against the appearance of corruption.

However, the current LDA has not kept pace with changes in the influence industry, failing to hold lobbying activities to public scrutiny. In short: While spending on lobbying grows, the number of registered lobbyists has dropped. Many in the lobbying industry simply circumvent the rules and avoid registration, leaving much of their work under-reported or unreported. This phenomenon, often called “shadow lobbying,” is on the rise and the true number of lobbyists is grossly underexaggerated.

Current reporting requirements also fail to disclose the names of those individuals who may direct lobbying behind the scenes.

Solutions: 

To address these issues and the ineffectiveness of the LDA, in 2011, the American Bar Association (ABA) created a bipartisan task force to review federal lobbying laws. Made up of K Street and public interest lobbyists, as well as academics, this task force recommended reforms that were largely adopted by the almost 400,000-member ABA.

The recommendations include:

  • New Registration Requirements. Requiring individuals to register as lobbyists if (a) they make more than one lobbying contact (b) receive compensation of more than $2,500 or make expenditures of more than $10,000 per quarter and (c) spend 12 hours or more per quarter conducting lobbying activity
  • Enhanced Reporting. Including in the reports filed by registered lobbyists the names of any individual who provides support for lobbying through strategic planning, public communications and polling operations
  • Increased Oversight. Shifting enforcement from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C. to the Department of Justice to ensure greater effectiveness.

The Lobbying Disclosure Reform Act of 2020, introduced in the previous Congress, represented the first substantive attempt to update the LDA in over a decade. The bill sought to reflect what lobbying looks like in 2020, making reporting more transparent and accurate. Significantly, it was crafted and introduced in a bipartisan manner.

This bill would update the arcane and outdated legal definition of “lobbying,” creating greater transparency around the billions of dollars corporations, labor unions, and other special interests spend on lobbying each year.

Learn more about our lobbying reform efforts.