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A plan for true, online lobbying disclosure

In the digital, post-Abramoff age, there's really no excuse for lack of lobbyist disclsoure, writes Jeffrey Birnbaum in the Washington Post.

In the digital, post-Abramoff age, there's really no excuse for lack of lobbyist disclsoure, writes Jeffrey Birnbaum in the Washington Post.

In the 19th century, the German Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck said, "Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made."

But Bismarck didn't have a BlackBerry. We live in an information age. Citizens are accustomed to seeing all sorts of things at incredible velocity. Legislation may not be pretty, but it certainly has more concrete impact on peoples' lives than much of the trivia that clutters the Internet these days.

How does it make sense that we can go online to see a satellite image of a neighborhood in Los Angeles, but we can't find out how the pharmaceutical industry pressured Congress to keep drugs prices high?

It doesn't.

Now, in the great tradition of silver linings, Jack Abramoff has given Congress the opening it needs to change all that and bring disclosure out of the 19th century.

 Here's how two former FEC commissioners want to see public access to lobbying information.

They advocate that all these components be disclosed more fully, frequently (monthly or quarterly) and via the Internet so that any voter can type in a few key words and find out in real time who's pressing whom for what in the nation's capital.

For example, a person who types "Rep. X" could find out how much a lobbyist for Interest Y has contributed or raised for the lawmaker (including for Rep. X's pet charities), the number of lobbying visits the two have had with each other, and the value of gifts or trips they've exchanged.

If Rep. X can defend her actions with her constituents in the face of such disclosures, more power to her. But in the end, the voters can decide based on a much greater range of information than they have access to now.

 But as we saw earlier last week, actual implementation of many of these systems prove to be far more unwieldy than seems proper. Government will have to provide robust systems, not just well-intentioned onees.