Damned if you do...

The dust up over the nomination of Marty Cohen to the Illinois Commerce Commission highlights problems with Illinois’ Lobbyist Registration Act. Who is supposed to register, and when, and what are the consequences of registering? Or not registering? The public has a clear right to know who is trying to influence government decision, especially when those influencers are paid to work their contacts. But Illinois’ lobbyist law is a mash-up of afterthought, hindsight, and boilerplate.

What is “lobbying”? Under the Act, it’s "any communication with an official” that’s intended to “influence[e] executive, legislative, or administrative action.” Sounds pretty clear? Maybe, maybe not; after all, we’re talking about laws here. The rub is in the definition of “official,” which is limited to the statewide executive officers, their chiefs of staff, cabinet members, and members of the legislature. Who’s not on the list? It’s not clear that agency heads are on the list. Or agency staff. Or even legislative staff.

And that’s just in the definition. There are also a host of exemptions to the Act, designed to free people from registering when all they want to do is exercise their constitutional right to petition government. Experts who are invited to testify are exempted. Lawyers representing clients are exempted, but are clients, when appearing at an administrative hearing, exempt?

Now consider the consequences. It used to be that many registered to cover themselves, even when they planned on doing very little actual lobbying. Now, registrants are barred from serving on boards and commissions. For all that the Senate Dems are upset that Marty wasn’t registered, if he had, he’d be unable to serve, which might fit their goals just fine. In other words, he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.

The dust up over the Cohen nomination shows that Illinois needs to rework its Lobbyist Registration Act. The first step is with a clear definition of what actions trigger registration.