New e-lobby tracking system coming online

As early as next month, lobbyists will begin reporting online their efforts to influence federal agencies and Congress. Besides dramatically reducing the amount of paperwork required to track lobbyists, electronic registration eventually will make information about their activities instantly available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

Lobbying is one of the fastest-growing industries in America, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Some 17,000 representatives of thousands of companies and interest groups spend $1.4 billion a year trying to influence the votes and decisions of members of Congress and officials of federal agencies.

Information technology companies are among the busiest. They spent $39 million in 1998 — more than airlines and automakers, but only half as much as the insurance industry — to court congressmen and persuade government policymakers.

Lobbyists are required to file semiannual reports indicating how much money they spent, which houses of Congress and which federal agencies they lobbied, and what companies or organizations they lobbied for.

The electronic system will make it possible for lobbyist records to be available almost immediately, said Pam Gavin, superintendent of the Office of Public Records. Today, retrieving information on lobbyists' activities requires a trip to Capitol Hill to comb through the database at the Office of Public Records. Some of the information also is available online at www.opensecrets.org, a World Wide Web site operated by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lobbyists will register by filling out a form online. The form won't have to be retyped into a separate database, as information on paper lobbying reports is today, Gavin said. Electronic registration will begin in 30 to 60 days, Gavin said. However, it may be several more months before the lobbying reports are made available to the public online.

Today's paper lobbying reports reveal how much organizations are spending, how much lobbying firms are earning, what issues individuals and organizations are lobbying for, and who the lobbyists are. Key information that is omitted is which members of Congress and which agency officials are targeted.

That will not change with the new electronic forms, Gavin said. The electronic system is being created by Public Disclosures Inc., a subsidiary of Netivation.com Inc. of Washington, D.C.

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