In recent years, there has been increased disclosure of lobbying activities around the country that has shed light on corporate and special interest influence on politics, however the data can sometimes be difficult to navigate and understand. In California, the Secretary of State provides lobbying data through the Cal-Access website, which is searchable by individual lobbyist, lobbying firm or employer of lobbyists. The Secretary of State also provides the raw data from their lobbying filings, which Dave Middleton – whose work revolves around web programming, art, and understanding data – has used to create California Lobby Search. The site aims to make lobbying data more accessible and searchable, including indexing by legislation, bill subject keyword, firm name and company name.
California Lobby Search takes raw lobbying data tables directly from the Secretary of State’s Cal-Access site, which is separated into two types of filings corresponding with the lobbying Form 635 and Form 625. The Form 635 is filed quarterly by industry groups and companies who hire lobbyists. The Form 625 is filed quarterly by the lobbying firms themselves. California Lobby Search does not process or otherwise incorporate individual lobbyist data.
Users can search by bill, company, or both and can also add a time frame spanning from one session to multiple years, back to 1999. By default, search results in a “Filings” list which can be sorted by company, filing date, lobbying firm, etc., and can be downloaded into an Excel sheet. The data returned is broken into easily understandable columns. Users can alternatively select to filter the data by “Bills”, which show the total bills lobbied on by the selected company and what the subject matter is. In order to get a complete picture of data from this site, we recommend downloading both the Filings spreadsheet as well as the Bills spreadsheet.
There are several notable limitations to the site, including the fact that search results are limited to 500 results per search, that there is no systematic accuracy check, and not all amendment filings are included. The concern regarding accuracy is not so much about the accuracy of the records themselves - as they are taken straight from the Secretary of State - but about the titling of the bills, which Middleton characterized as “definitely a potential point of failure.” In addition, California Lobby Search only shows payments made to lobbying firms, and does not provide details on activity payments and gifts, which are reported in Part C, Section C of the Form 635. Activity payments can reveal indirect influence on legislators by showing their attendance at events, or their staff’s attendance at events, while also providing details of what the money was spent on. (i.e., food, gifts, etc.). California Lobby Search does include activity payments in its totals, however when the data is downloaded the payments are simply categorized as “Other Payments to Influence,” and are not explained further.
To read more about Dave Middleton and his work on California Lobby Search, check out this interesting story that appeared in Capitol Weekly.