When Bad Things Happen to Good Ideas

04 Nov, 2009

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

November 4, 2009

Today’s theme is “unintended consequences” – specifically, how something that appears to be a good idea can create unpredictable outcomes.

The best book I’ve read on this subject, called “That’s Not What We Meant to Do,” examines a host of political reforms during the last 80 years, from federal welfare policy to immigration. Historian Steven Gillon analyzes the original intent of each policy change and then looks at the actual results. Sometimes, the unintended consequences have been positive. More often than not – usually because of a lack of information or poor planning — the consequences have been problematic.

But unintended consequences don’t just apply to major public policy debates. They come into play on smaller matters of governmental process. To illustrate my point, here are two political stories from the past week.

Lobbyists are deregistering with Congress at a record pace, said a study released Monday by the Center for Responsive Politics and OMB Watch. According to an article in The Hill, more than 1,400 people terminated their lobbying registrations in the second quarter. Since the beginning of last year, more than 18,000 have deregistered, while only 15,310 have registered.

What’s going on? “The giant spike in resignations came just after the Obama administration instituted strict new rules on lobbyist activity,” noted the article. A spokesman for OMB Watch coyly observed that the high termination rate occurred “at a most controversial time.” Could it be that efforts to keep registered lobbyists from working for the administration or meeting with agency staff about Recovery Act projects is having a negative effect?

If so, then one of the unintended consequences of Obama’s new White House ethics rules is a decrease in political transparency. By treating lobbyists punitively, the administration is encouraging part-time advocates to prove they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the current law, which requires them to register if they spend 20 percent of their time lobbying. We shouldn’t be surprised to find out that those with the ability to deregister are taking advantage of the opportunity.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Congress had in mind when it passed and amended the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Meanwhile, in an effort to increase transparency, the administration introduced a new policy to disclose the names of all White House visitors. Beginning in mid-December, visitor access records that are 90 days old will be posted on the White House website.  As promised when the policy was first announced, the administration also released the identities of visitors since January whose names had been requested by outside groups and individuals.

Well, as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. As The Washington Post reported, the release of the 481 selected visitor records made it appear that Obama spent most of his time meeting with labor officials and movie stars. But this initial data dump also included the names of some pretty controversial figures, including William Ayres, Jeremiah Wright and Michael Moore. Good Lord! Within minutes you could almost hear the sound of Twitterers tweeting and bloggers bloviating.

But, no, said White House Special Counsel Norm Eisen in a separate post, “the well-known individuals with those names never actually came to the White House.” The problem is that as many as 100,000 people (including lots of tourists) stop by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a given month. And, because groups that made information requests often were looking for evidence to support their conspiratorial theories, the odds of the wrong Jeremiah Wright showing up were pretty high.

The result was that much of the positive press the administration hoped to win from the announcement was drowned out by misunderstandings.

As for the confusion created by the faux Ayres, Wright and Moore, Eisen called it “an important lesson in the unintended consequences of such vigorous disclosure.”