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After a rash of congressional ethics scandals, Congress toughened up lobbying disclosure rules by passing the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in 2007. But just how transparent have lobbyists become since then? The answer appears to be ‘more,’ but there remains plenty of room for improvement.

A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office mirrored what Center researchers learned the hard way by sifting through thousands of disclosure filings for “The Climate Lobby” – an investigation of Washington’s lobbying surge on climate change legislation – namely, that some firms are still falling short at full disclosure.

The 2007 act required increased frequency of lobbyist filings beginning in 2008 – from twice per year to quarterly. The amended rules also expanded a requirement that lobbyists disclose whether they held what is referred to as an “official covered position” – such as a congressional seat or staff level job or an executive level position in the executive branch – at any point in the last 20 years. Previously lobbyists only needed to disclose that kind of revolving-door activity for the previous two years.

In its climate lobby reporting, the Center found that many firms did a fine job detailing both the revolving door positions of registered lobbyists and the specific legislation their clients were interested in, such as last year’s bill to establish a carbon cap-and-trade system. In this filing, for instance, lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck actually listed not just one, but multiple congressional staff positions held by one of its climate lobbyists.

In other cases, filings were far less specific. This Colling and Associates filing, for example, fails to highlight the fact that two of its climate lobbyists served in the 1990s as a congressman and a senior White House environmental advisor, respectively. Many firms also elected to simply list issues such as “climate change,” without detailing specific legislation, though that is by no means a violation.

The GAO reached similar conclusions in its new disclosure study. It found “that lobbying firms failed to appropriately disclose ‘official covered position’ previously held by individual lobbyists” on at least six of the approximately 100 filings reviewed. GAO investigators also found that “lobbyists were unable to provide documentation for all of the [government] entities they reported lobbying” – such as the Senate or the Environmental Protection Agency. “[L]obbyists could not provide documentation to support any of the entities lobbied for 26 percent of disclosure reports,” the report stated.

Noting that 13 percent of lobbying registrants apparently neglected to file or misfiled required reports, the GAO recommended strengthening instruction to enhance lobbyists’ understanding of the new rules. It acknowledged that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is ramping up both enforcement activities and compliance assistance.

PaperTrail will look for progress when first quarter disclosures for 2009 are filed on April 20.

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