IOM editorial: Let's get that lobbying law in place, please

With protesters in the background, Councilman William K. Greenlee (right) participates in a Council hearing on the proposed soda tax.

Last week, while the city was distracted by the misadventures of our troubled school district, an important process was happening below the radar that could change politics in Philadelphia: The Board of Ethics was preparing to implement the city's first lobbying law. But it was running into some trouble.

Lobbying is the act of trying to influence government. Most lobbying laws require professional lobbyists to register and disclose the identities of their clients and the amount of their expenses so the public can know who is spending money to influence which official. The idea is not that lobbying is bad, but that a little sunlight will discourage shady doings.

Perfect example: The soda-tax opponents who flooded City Hall this month. They had every right to make their voices heard. But it would be good to know how much money they spent winning over Council (in addition to their campaign donations, which already have to be disclosed).

Until last spring, Philadelphia had the dubious distinction of being the only big city in the country without a lobbying law on the books. Then, without much opposition, Council finally passed one.

The Board of Ethics is scheduled to enforce the law starting in July. It recently published regulations - the specific ground rules for how the law will work - and on Wednesday held a public hearing to get feedback on them.

This time, there was opposition. The Philadelphia Bar Association and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce testified that they saw problems with both the law and the regulations. They said it wasn't clear what counts as lobbying and what doesn't, and conduct that most people wouldn't consider lobbying might sometimes be covered.

The bar association also said the new law includes lawyers, who are supposed to be regulated only by the state Supreme Court.

The Board of Ethics is confident it can implement the law clearly and successfully. But in light of the questions, the nonpartisan watchdog Committee of Seventy has encouraged the board to postpone enforcement of the law for six months. The Committee of Seventy testified in favor of the law last year, and still wants lobbyists to comply, but says the board should hold off on attempting to punish what may well be honest mistakes until kinks are worked out.

We disagree. We don't doubt the law can be improved. (We have a problem with the $500 registration fee, which is much more than the state's lobbyist fee, and an unfair burden for smaller outfits.) But the Board of Ethics already has discretion of enforcement, meaning it can choose to send a letter warning lobbyists about an infraction before it punishes them. It should use this discretion liberally in the law's first few months, but it shouldn't take enforcement off the table entirely because lobbyists would have no reason to put in the time and effort of following the law.

There's another reason Philadelphia needs this law as soon as possible, rather than six months from now. Some of the objections being expressed to the lobbying law are beyond the scope of the Ethics Board, and can be addressed only by City Council.

This means the law itself might be revisited. If that happens, there will undoubtedly be people lobbying Council not just to clarify the law, but to weaken it. Now wouldn't it be nice if those people had to register, and disclose their lobbying?

Follow us on Twitter and review city services on our sister site, City Howl.