Archer Daniels Midland, the $30 billion global food giant, has plenty at stake when it comes to federal and congressional policymaking. That's one reason it spent $360,000 on lobbying in the second quarter of this year.
What policies all that money is going to push is, at least in theory, information that the public should be able to find when the company files its mandatory quarterly lobbying-disclosure report to Congress.
But ADM's tally of its April-June lobbying won't tell you much at all. On trade, you'll learn only that ADM lobbied on "Matters related to agricultural trade." How about the environment? The report reveals only that ADM lobbied on "Matters relating to climate change and sustainability."
And ADM is not alone.
Some companies' and advocacy groups' quarterly disclosure forms provide highly specific lists of bills and topics they're working on. But other lobbying reports deploy language so vague that they reveal almost no information at all, undermining the efficacy of laws aimed at keeping the public abreast of how insiders are lobbying their elected officials.
"It is not providing the public with the information they need to know what's going on in Congress," said Sarah Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. "By not reporting the issue activity, you are not giving Americans the information they need to understand these lobbying campaigns."
The lobbying rules require quarterly reports that list both broad categories (like energy, trade, defense, taxes, and so forth) and "specific lobbying issues" within those categories. It's the line in the reports asking for specifics—Line 16—that's often left very vague.
Take the disclosure form that lobbying giant Squire Patton Boggs filed for its $380,000 in second-quarter 2014 work with the refiner Citgo. Below the general "fuel/gas/oil" category, it lists only "issues related to brand protection."
Or take Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a relatively new nonprofit group that urges conservatives to push for low-carbon energy investment. The second-quarter report filed by Crossroads Strategies, one of the firms lobbying on the group's behalf, says only that it's lobbying on "issues related to comprehensive energy sources and environmental policies."
Compare that with Koch Industries, whose disclosure forms provide a detailed list of bills and topics the company spent $2.7 million lobbying on in the second quarter. Or the lefty League of Conservation Voters, whose disclosure of $90,000 in second-quarter lobbying goes one step further: It not only describes the bills that the group is lobbying but, unlike Koch Industries, also says which position it's supporting.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, said the current system allows too much to remain outside of public view.
"We would like to have a lobbying-disclosure system that tells us something about what is being discussed. Given that national policy is at stake, we should have a good sense of who is arguing what and why," he said.
Under the current system, the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House offer guidelines for how lobbyists should adhere to the Lobbying Disclosure Act requirements. The guidelines demand a listing of bill numbers when the lobbying is on legislation, but they don't stop there.
"In our view, the LDA contemplates disclosures that are adequate to inform the public of the lobbying client's specific issues from a review of the Form ... without independent familiarity with bill numbers or the client's interest in specific subject matters within larger bills," the guidelines state.
"The disclosures ... must include bill numbers, where applicable, but must always contain information that is adequate, standing alone, to inform the public of the specific lobbying issues," the guidelines add.
But enforcing that standard is difficult: The House and Senate offices don't have the auditing and investigative power to police the quality of the disclosure once the filings come in.
And, more broadly, if some reports are not especially complete, it's not a problem that's front and center in federal efforts to enforce the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia has undertaken various enforcement actions, including a case against a lobbying firm brought earlier this year that could lead to a fine of more than $5 million. But those cases are about failure to file disclosure reports and separate political contribution reports, rather than the quality of the disclosures.
"You really have to screw up pretty badly to be in the crosshairs of the U.S. attorney's office when it comes to the [Lobbying Disclosure Act]," said Christopher DeLacy, an expert on lobbying and campaign law with the firm Holland & Knight.
Elsewhere, the Government Accountability Office periodically tracks compliance with several aspects of the disclosure requirements, but that review does not look at whether the listing of issues is complete on disclosure forms.
"This is the case with lots of government agencies that deal with compliance. Just getting people to file accurately and on time is the biggest concern," said Bryner of the Center for Responsive Politics. "All of the details with how they are filing and the content of their filing is to some extent gravy, and that's too bad because just filing the form does not necessarily give people what they need to know."