Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its 2013 report on compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), summarizing the audits of 104 lobbyist reports and information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

We see several trends in this year’s report.  First, registrants are reporting more difficulties complying with the LDA.  Second, enforcement has remained static, with civil complaints and settlements remaining a small but important part of the enforcement picture.  Finally, the report highlights chronic recordkeeping problems among registrants and makes recommendations to combat those problems.

As part of the review, lobbying firms reported on the “ease of complying” with the LDA’s disclosure requirements.  This number was down again this year – only about 20% said that compliance was “very easy” (nearly 70% said it was “easy” in 2010).  Given that there have been no recent changes in the LDA’s requirements, this trend is puzzling.  A possible explanation is the rise of “unlobbyists,” who avoid LDA registration through careful application of the law’s definitions and exceptions.  Compliance is indeed more difficult for firms that employ “unlobbyists,” because they must closely parse the meaning of a “lobbying contact” and time spent on “lobbying activities.”  It is also possible that increased attention on lobbyists and marginally increased enforcement have combined to create more concern about accurate reporting.

On the enforcement front, the report shows that civil complaints and settlements remain a part of the U.S. Attorney’s enforcement toolkit, but that enforcement overall has remained static.  The U.S. Attorney won a default judgment for $200,000 in December 2013 against a chronic offender, and filed a civil complaint against another offender in March 2014.  This rate of one or two settlements or complaints each year has held constant since 2012.

Finally, the report shows that the same problems arise year after year, including failures in identifying a lobbyist’s prior government positions; failure to provide records to support lobbying certain entities or on certain issues; and incorrect rounding of expense or income totals.  Perhaps because of this and the decrease in ease of compliance, the agency closes the report by calling for some sort of clearinghouse that could provide lobbying compliance training and best practices, an idea that it first proposed in the 2008 disclosure report.

We frequently work with LDA registrants to develop recordkeeping systems to track lobbying activities, agencies contacted, issues lobbied, and lobbying income and expenses.  We have also helped guide lobbyists through the GAO audit process.  As the compliance landscape becomes more complex and the lobbying industry increasingly relies on close and even narrow readings of the LDA statute, we strongly encourage all LDA registrants to seek competent counsel on these important legal requirements.