By Ginger Gibson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of registered Washington, D.C. lobbyists is at its lowest level in 18 years, mainly because more lobbyists are not registering not because there are fewer lobbyists, two watchdog groups said on Monday.
President Donald Trump has lashed out at the U.S. capital's army of influence experts in his vows to "drain the swamp." On Saturday, Trump signed an executive order implementing a five-year ban on members of his administration working as lobbyists.
Such measures in recent years have not done much to reduce the ranks of lobbyists, but they have driven them under cover, Andre Delattre, executive director for the consumer advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement.
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"The influence industry hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just gotten less transparent," Delattre said. "Voters have a right to know what special interests are working to influence their lawmakers, and today’s laws don’t live up to that standard."
The National Institute For Lobbying & Ethics, which represents registered lobbyists, released a report on Monday calling for reforms to make more people register.
According to a Center for Responsive Politics report on Friday, 11,143 lobbyists registered last year, the lowest number since 1998.
Under current law, lobbyists can avoid registering by spending less than 20 percent of their time lobbying for a single client. So, if a lobbyist splits time among several clients, they are not required to register. Also, advising a company without directly lobbying members of Congress on behalf of that company allows a lobbyist to avoid registration.
The National Institute For Lobbying & Ethics is calling on Congress to eliminate the 20 percent threshold and replace it with a requirement to register after doing 10 hours of work in a three-month window. The proposal calls for more detailed explanation of what entails "lobbying" and shortens the time lobbyists have to register.
"Our recommendations are not going to be easy for everyone in the profession to accept or agree with, but with the changes in what lobbying is and who is lobbying today, we believe this is the direction our profession needs to go,” said the groups' president Paul Miller.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Cynthia Osterman)