Date of Graduation
Master of Public Affairs (MoPA)
College of Arts and Sciences
Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good
Lobbying reform in California’s capital presents a complex policy problem for good government advocates and policymakers. Lobbyists have a large influence on political and policy matters in the state legislature and executive branch. Reform proponents naturally see the oversized influence of lobbyists as a problem. However, how big of a problem is lobbying? Further, what efforts underway now address lobbying? Lobbyists are defined in California law with a monetary and time limit requirement. We can look at current law to understand the failings of regulatory bodies and how the law fails to properly oversee lobbying activity. While there is not one particular solution to combat the loopholes in state law surrounding lobbyists, every option should be considered given the fortunate policy windows facing reformers due to the California Strategies scandal and recent news stories about astroturfing.
The ongoing problem with the definition of a lobbyist is the practice of shadow lobbying. The issue of shadow lobbying arises when individuals operate in the grey area of what the legal definition is so they do not register with the Secretary of State and are not overseen by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). Shadow lobbying prevents the public from understanding what legislation or executive action that individual is attempting to influence or alter. In order to properly maximize good government reform on lobbying activity, Lobbyists should be defined as an individual receiving compensation by an employer for attempting to influence regulatory, executive or legislative action. Further, if an individual is being paid by a third party to speak out on an issue not as that individual, then they should register with the Secretary of State.
Current regulatory requirements also allow employers to not fully disclose spending activities, shrouding the complete financial priorities and actions by special interest groups in Sacramento. Out of the top ten lobbying spenders during the first six months of 2013, 68 percent of expenditures were not itemized and disclosed to the public (See Appendix 1). The staggering amount of undisclosed money, totaling over $10 million, presents reformers an opportunity to publicize an issue that does not get a lot of attention. The lack of disclosure is not a partisan issue. SEIU-UHW and Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association hid 98 percent of their expenditures for the first six months of 2013 (See Appendix 1). Without the full disclosure of expenditures, the public is not able to determine if an employer is spending monies to influence policy and whether that employer is hiring strategists, media personnel, and political staff to sway public officials indirectly. The appearance of ordinary community support could cause legislators and staff to infer that a bill is popular or must be stopped based on the outpouring of constituent engagement, that currently could be funded by corporate or special interests not disclosed to the public.
While this paper does not focus on the strategic actions taken by good government groups, focusing on pragmatic and possible reforms is crucial to regulating lobbying. Competing reform concepts often overwhelm advocates as they search for solutions to reform and regulate campaign finance and lobbying laws. Reformers often focus on larger case studies to pinpoint the problem and solution to a good government issue, such as the Citizens United ruling and the upcoming McCutcheon case before the United States Supreme Court. While those reformers do have a point about focusing on Citizens United, their aims are not realistic given the immense difficulty in amending the U.S. Constitution and that money is considered free speech. This paper reviews possible strategies ranging from the ballot box to policy solutions based in Sacramento to determine if another narrative is possible for reformers in California to latch onto for lobbying reform, rather than just looking at campaign finance reform and federal issues.Reformers and policymakers face a challenge on how to tackle a diverse and complex policy -- the Political Reform Act (PRA). In addition, examining previous legislation in the state legislature that addressed lobbying reform gives this paper guidelines for current solutions to the policy problems examined here.
A multi-dimensional approach to tackle the problems of astroturfing and shadow lobbying is necessary to restore regulatory oversight -- already enshrined in state law -- for the FPPC to remain committed to protecting California’s democratic principles. The FPPC, with a limited budget and staff resources, must be given every available tool and regulatory authority to properly oversee how public policy is affected by the lobbying community. The law currently allows loopholes to exist to allow shadow lobbying and astroturfing by employers and lobbyists. Closing these loopholes now could address the shortfalls in regulatory oversight and ensure disclosure is prominent, accessible and clear. While focusing our attention just to the FPPC would be easier, reformers must look at how lobbyists are defined and if a strategy based outside of Sacramento is worth pursuing.
Alonso, Scott, "Challenges for Good Government Reformers in California: Shadow Lobbying & Astroturfing" (2013). Master's Projects. 109.