Public disclosure vs. outright lobbying caps

Most people don’t take kindly to politicians who get a free new car and then push some legislation to give the car manufacturer a big tax break. Transparency in government has proved time and time again to be a great deterrent to corruption. However, the main requirement for this to work is an educated citizenry. Additionally, government officials have gotten good at hiding things in plain sight.

If no one knows, or cares, that a politician is getting thousands of dollars in goodies, then they can take as many as they want. But even if they openly disclose these gifts, someone has to be there to call them on it. People have to do their homework to keep politicians honest. This is the allure of the outright lobbying caps and bans: people don’t have to pay as close attention.

There is a lot to be said of voter apathy. In most cases, major news outlets and watchdog groups are relied upon to inform the public of government activity. Most people don’t spend their afternoons looking up lobbyist records on the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission’s website. And these government watchdogs often have their own agenda. Generally speaking, I doubt many people know which legislator received the most gifts from lobbyists so far in 2012. According to the AJC, it was Mickey Channell ($4,366.49) in the last legislative session.

In Georgia, full disclosure of all gifts to legislatures is required. However, even if they wanted to know, citizens would have a hard time finding out unless they knew exactly how to look. The Campaign Finance Commission’s search database isn’t the easiest to use. There isn’t exactly a table of legislators and how much their getting. While the records do exist, making any meaningful conclusions out of them is difficult.

The civil penalties for a legislator violating Georgia disclosure laws amount to up to $1,000 per violation (for first violation) and up to $25,000 for 3rd or subsequent violation. The GGTCFC does not have the power to remove a legislator from office under any circumstance. Additional penalties are levied upon the lobbyist for failing to report.

Which would have a bigger impact on controlling lobbyist influence: capping daily contributions at $100 (or $50, or $1,000) or compiling an easy to read transparency report? If an average citizen could go to Google and search for “large lobbyist contributions in Georgia” and get a detailed list, would that work? How about a one stop website with a full report of all contributions? If the tools were easy for the average person to use, would the average person use them? Could we impose stiffer penalties for disclosure violations? Or can we ban gifts outright, and would that be a better route?

Additional Resources

Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (GGTCFC) Lobbyist Disclosures: http://media.ethics.ga.gov/search/Lobbyist/Lobbyist_ByName.aspx

AJC Gifts Continue to Rain on Lawmakers: http://www.ajc.com/news/gifts-continue-to-rain-1409980.html

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