The Buddy System
A disturbing Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week said that some lobbyists were tipped by FCC staffers about what items would be voted on at upcoming meetings.
Information is power, and knowing the agenda ahead of time gave those lobbyists an advantage. Nonpublic information, including public meeting agenda items, shouldn't be disclosed until it is available in a public notice issued a week before the scheduled meeting.
Effective lobbyists influence policy just as surely as TV ads influence buying decisions. So long as they all play by the same rules (note to Jack Abramoff), lobbying is just another form of representative democracy. A lobbyist represents the interests of shareholders.
But a big D.C. office or a frequent visitor's pass to the FCC should not allow some lobbyists to get the last word in before lobbying is prohibited a week before the actual meeting. They shouldn't get the inside dope on items commissioners are considering.
The GAO study's author, Mark Goldstein, told B&C that the nine lobbyists who got tipped to upcoming items were generally from larger D.C.-based firms with regular business before the commission. Three other lobbyists who were left clueless were from smaller firms without a big Washington presence. Also left out of the loop were public-interest groups.
Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy says: “It is no secret that the industry has had a direct pipeline to senior officials at the commission for decades.” Chester also notes that the relationship is no different whether Democrats or Republicans are in power. “Generally, the only way public-interest types get inside info is if they volunteer to babysit for a commissioner's grandkids,” he said, only half in jest.
And while the commissioners have been pushing for a change in the sunshine laws to permit more than two commissioners to meet in private, that sounds like a commission going in the opposite direction. Why not have a lot more public meetings so the issues they need to hash out together can be done in full view?
The GAO report was requested by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Telecommunications & Internet subcommittee, who wants a more transparent and open FCC process. The public deserves no less, regardless of who is in power.