When Sunlight Doesn't Disinfect
How lobbyists learned to subvert shame.
"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," Louis Brandeis famously observed, "electric light the most efficient policeman." This reformist idea influenced Congress back in the 1970s when it assembled the disclosure requirements that now govern financial contributions to candidates for federal office. The birth of the World Wide Web in the 1990s freed campaign finance disclosure forms from the dusty file drawers of the Federal Election Commission—where they had lain unread except by reporters and political professionals—and made that information available to anyone who owned a computer. The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, in turn, sliced and diced that data in a thousand eye-opening ways on its invaluable Web site, opensecrets.org. Anyone who seeks to influence legislation by lavishing campaign contributions on members of Congress is now on notice that he stands naked before the world.
Unfortunately, the influence industry adapted brilliantly to this new environment. At the very start, the bright glare of publicity may have shamed one or two of the big givers (though many more simply shifted their spending to unlimited and undisclosed "soft-money" contributions to political parties, a practice that was finally outlawed in 2002). But over time, the influence industry learned to love the new disclosure requirements. Lobbyists did this by training themselves not to think of sunlight as a disinfectant that threatened their livelihood, but rather as something more akin to the klieg lights used to publicize movie premieres.
Case in point: the Web bio of Bertram Carp, a "principal" (read: corporate lobbyist) of the "law firm" (read: influence mill) Williams & Jensen. If a reporter were to point out in the Washington Post that Carp shoveled more than $37,000 in campaign contributions to members of Congress during the 2006 election cycle, his purpose would be to demonstrate the unwholesome political influence bought by the telecommunications and other industries that hire Carp. If a trade publication called Influence: The Business of Lobbyingwere to spotlight Carp by writing, as it did in 2000, that "Among the top five lobbyist donors, Mr. Carp was the only one to spread a significant chunk of cash across party lines," its purpose would be the neutral dissemination of shoptalk to others in the lobbying profession. But if Carp's own Web bio were to repeat that sentence pridefully, as it indeed does, Carp's (or Williams & Jensen's) purpose would be praise, i.e., to demonstrate to potential clients the vast number of legislators that Carp has in his pocket. You don't believe Carp, or Influence magazine, has spread that much manure? No sweat, hoss; just look it up.
Don't get me wrong. I still think campaign finance disclosure is a reform well worth preserving. I'm just a tad chagrined that the lobby industry has done such an effective job at turning what was once envisioned to be an instrument of shame into an advertising tool.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.