Since registering to lobby the federal government in February 2014 and until April of this year, Koch-affiliated nonprofit Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has filed ultra-detailed quarterly lobbying reports. AFP’s transparent practices set them apart from other lobbying interests, and stood in sharp contrast to their reputation for secrecy. However, AFP’s most recent quarterly filing breaks with this trend. For the first time, the group shared only a minimal amount of information about their lobbying activities.
Corporations and interest groups that lobby the federal government must file quarterly reports under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, but what these forms require in terms of lobbying transparency leaves much to be desired. While filers must disclose things like compensation, which lobbyists were active, and what issue areas they lobbied on, other important pieces of information are not subject to reporting requirements. Lobbying groups are not, for example, required to disclose which individual officeholders they met with – just which legislative body (House or Senate) and executive branch offices and agencies. Nor are filers required to disclose what discrete activities were part of their advocacy efforts, only what overall issues they lobbied on. AFP, however, reported this information anyway. For example, in the first quarter of 2017, AFP disclosed meeting with 26 members of Congress or their staff on health care issues:
The group’s most recent filing, for the second quarter of 2017, is much less descriptive. Despite spending the same amount on lobbying as the quarter before, AFP described its lobbying activity on health care as, simply, “Supported Healthcare Reform”:
Nor is this reduction in transparency limited to AFP’s health care lobbying. Likewise with labor, banking, tax, and veterans’ issues, for the first time AFP chose not to disclose individual meetings or other activities. The new filing only reports whether AFP worked to support or oppose an issue or a piece of legislation.
Notably, the more limited information AFP provided on its most recent report is consistent with how other lobbying groups choose to disclose. And while it’s currently unknown why AFP decided to change its practices, one explanation may be the group’s recent increase in federal lobbying activity.
AFP spent $80,000 on federal lobbying during the first half of this year. That sum is greater than the group’s spending for any full year since first registering to lobby at the federal level in 2014. The group also added three new lobbyists in an amended registration form filed in March. The increase in activity builds on a trend of AFP slowly ratcheting up its lobbying activity. The group may have simply found it to be too costly to detail each individual lobbying action, given this increased volume.
Whatever the reason, AFP’s change in disclosure practices also serves to obscure important pathways of influence for this special interest group: AFP recently announced plans to spend $4.5 million on ads urging three Democratic senators in conservative states to support tax reform. Under the group’s previous disclosure practices, we likely would’ve found out whether lobbyists also met with these senators in person. But if AFP’s most recent report reflects a permanent change, then we’ll never know.