Redefining political intelligence

This article originally appeared in The Hill: Redefining political intelligence

In a recent article published in The Hill, Wall Street pitted lobbyists against provision of STOCK Act legislation, Kevin Bogardus refers to members of the political intelligence industry as “operatives.”  This definition continues the growing trend of defining the political intelligence industry as a backroom secret swapping between Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Political intelligence, however, is much more than that and shouldn’t be defined by a few bad apples.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once famously said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  At a time when Americans are profoundly exasperated with the legislative process, the STOCK Act is a positive first step toward exposing Members of Congress and their staff who profit from inside information. But in their otherwise laudable effort to shine light on Capitol Hill’s darker corners, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and others’ failed effort to include an amendment to include “political intelligence” as part of the STOCK Act risked harming an industry that also serves the public good.  Let’s be clear on the difference between “political intelligence,” which can promote open, honest government – and insider trading, which is what happens when privileged information is used for personal gain.

Throughout my four-decade career as a journalist, I’ve considered myself a “political intelligence gatherer” in the best sense of the term. As a reporter covering the Justice Department and federal courts in the 1970s, I learned firsthand the importance of digging into the backroom dealings and off-the-record transactions that plague America’s capital city. Political intelligence gatherers give citizens the most powerful tools to fight corruption: information and transparency.

That legacy of political intelligence gathering continues today. In fact, since Watergate shattered the American public’s confidence in politics forty years ago, the need for full disclosure has never been greater. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address this year, the divide between Washington and the rest of the country seems to be widening, which is no doubt fueled by the sense that backroom deals, negotiated out of the public view, put special interests ahead of the common good.

While the effort by Senator Grassley and others to combat political insider trading is on the mark, the definition of political intelligence creates confusion between services like ours that promote open government and the bad actors who benefit from keeping government closed. He writes, “Congress…[is] supposed to enact policy in the best interests of the American people – not help Wall Street firms at the expense of everyone else.”  I couldn’t agree more. Just as we seek to promote accountability in the federal government, we want transparency within the political intelligence industry. But as the conversation over reforming Washington continues, let’s be sure not to confuse the cleansing value of information with the sullying effects of those who abuse it.

Jenkins is publisher of First Street by CQ Press, a political intelligence platform for advocacy professionals, that compiles hundreds of thousands of public records about current and former Members of Congress and staff to make sense of the maze of connections that influence the legislative process.

This article originally appeared in The Hill: Redefining political intelligence

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