The Coffee Lobby

Eric Lichtblau has a story in today’s New York Times noting that hundreds of meetings between White House officials and lobbyists are taking place outside the gates of the White House in a branch of Caribou Coffee.

These meetings, unlike those inside the mothership, of course go unrecorded in the visitor logs released on the White House website.

And while there are a variety of good reasons to hold a meeting outside the building, the Times reports that officials acknowledge that avoiding having the meetings recorded is sometimes a motivation.

Not particularly honorable. But it’s hardly an unpredictable development, and one that points to the obvious shortcoming of using location dependent visitor logs (which record just about everyone, lobbyist or not) as any sort of comprehensive record of the administration’s meetings with lobbyists. Of course White House officials regularly leave the White House on business, and of course those meetings—if they happen in Russia, in California, or over lunch near K Street—won’t be cataloged.

If the goal is to capture any of those meetings that involve face time with lobbyists, you’d need some affirmative regimen, requiring either the lobbyist or the lobbied to report each contact, no matter where it occurred. It could be set up something like the current regimen for foreign lobbyists. (Of course, there’s a lot of gray in who is officially a “lobbyist.”)

The visitor logs that the White House releases are cleaned-up versions of a database that the Secret Service has long kept to record White House comings and goings—they were never intended to be an elaborate record book. After the Secret Service fielded Freedom of Information Act requests for the documents, the Bush administration claimed that they were presidential records, not agency records, meaning that they wouldn’t be subject to FOIA. Even though three federal court decisions found that line of argument lacking under Bush, the Obama administration hasn’t disavowed that line of argument, and is instead releasing the records on a “discretionary” basis—meaning that they are simply choosing to do so, and not recognizing that they are public records under law.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.