Special interests and the lobbyists they employ have reported spending, since
1998, a total of almost $13 billion to influence Congress, the White House and
more than 200 federal agencies. They've hired a couple thousand former government
officials to influence federal policy on everything from abortion and adoption
to taxation and welfare. And they've filed--most of the time--thousands of pages
of disclosure forms with the Senate Office of Public Records and the House Clerk's
Washington's lobbyists reported billing $2.4 billion in 2003, the most recent
year for which complete data exist. That figure will almost certainly go up
to more than $3 billion in 2004.
Special interests routinely spend far more on lobbying each election cycle
than they do contributing to politicians and political parties. In the 2002
election cycle, the most recent for which complete data exists, the Federal
Election Commission reported that $1.6 billion was raised. In that same time
period, lobbyists received in payment $4 billion to press their case before
the government. In 2000, the last presidential election for which complete data
exist, those numbers were $2.3 billion for elections compared to $3.5 billion
Yet the resources devoted to tracking Washington's political mercenaries and
the billions they are paid to influence the decisions of members of Congress
and executive branch officials is minimal. The Senate Office of Public Records
employs 11 people, and the equivalent House office employs fewer than 35. By
contrast, the FEC, which has authority to enforce campaign finance laws, has
391 employees and an annual budget of $52 million.
That may explain why one in five of the companies lobbying the federal government
have failed to file one or more disclosure forms required by law. In all, there
are 14,000 missing lobbying documents that should have been filed with Congress
since 1998, including documents disclosing the activities of 49 of the top 50
Those are some of the findings of a new study by the Center for Public Integrity,
which examined all of the lobby disclosure forms filed with the Senate Office
of Public Records since 1998. As part of the study, Center researchers have
created an online, searchable database of every registered, federal lobbyist
in America, allowing users to find detailed data on lobbyists and their clients.
The database provides aggregated information over multiple years for industries,
issues or agencies lobbied and access to detailed information from individual
lobbying records. It takes information difficult to access from sources such
as the Senate Office of Public Records and makes it user friendly and easily
accessible by company, lobbying firm or issue.
The database also details federal lobbying activities by companies based in
each of the 50 states and six U.S. territories, along with information about
lobbying by universities and local governments. It shows, for example, that
in the past six and a half years, more than 300 universities have spent nearly
$132 million, while more than 1,400 local governments have doled out more than
$357 million to secure funding for everything from freeways to fire trucks.
Because of their ability to influence lawmakers and legislation, lobbyists
have been dubbed "the Fourth Branch" of government. But while they
wield enormous influence in the capital, lobbyists receive little attention
from the press and far less public scrutiny.
A search of the Nexis database shows that in 2004, news organizations wrote
ten times more stories on campaign finance issues than on federal lobbying,
even though the money spent on federal lobbying is routinely twice the amount
given to federal candidates and committees in campaign contributions.
Yet the disclosure forms that lobbyists file show far more directly than contribution
records what special interests seek in Washington. The reports can reveal that
a company is trying to get federal grants and contracts, or a state is attempting
to secure federal funding for a highway. They include information on who is
fighting for which slice of the nation's $2.5 trillion annual federal budget,
or for or against any of the rules in the 50 titles and tens of thousands of
pages of the Code of Federal Regulations.
Federal election law bars corporations, labor unions, non-profits and other
organizations from directly contributing to federal elections. These same groups
can and do hire lobbyists and pay them directly from their budgets.
Altria Group Inc., the parent company of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris
USA, devoted $125 million since 1998 to its lobbying operations. The U.S. Chamber
of Commerce, a non-profit organization that represents businesses, spent $193
million of its money on lobbyists--more than any other single entity. Even the
Prison Fellowship Ministries, a religious organization founded in 1976 by Watergate
figure Chuck Colson--who pled guilty to obstruction of justice in the Watergate
scandal--to minister to inmates, ex-convicts and their families, has spent $1,575,577
on lobbying federal officials.
While all three organizations would be barred from contributing to an election
regulated by the FEC, they can spend unlimited amounts of money hiring Washington
insiders (if they can afford them) to push their agendas.
Rules Made to Be Broken
Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, the federal law that regulates the
influence industry, a lobbyist must disclose his clients, the issues they have
hired him to lobby on, the government entities he is trying to influence on
their behalf and the amount of money they pay him. If the lobbyist is a former
government official, for a limited period of time he must disclose his old government
Yet many lobbyists fail to file necessary disclosure forms. Others file their
disclosures well beyond the deadlines established by law. Almost one in five
lobbying disclosure forms filed were at least three months late. Similarly,
more than 3,000 of those filings were submitted at least six months late, while
more than 1,700 of them were late by at least one year.
The Center found that countless forms are filed with portions that are blank
or improperly filled out. An unknown number of lobbyists neglect or refuse to
file any disclosure forms whatsoever.
In 1994, the General Accounting Office (now called the Government Accountability
Office) estimated that one in four lobbyists don't bother to register. Following
passage of the Lobbying Disclosure Act, lobbyist registrations increased significantly
from the prior year--in part because of the law's broader requirements for who
must file--but there are still those who do not bother to file.
It's enough to confuse even a presidential candidate. Last year, Sen. John
Kerry voluntarily released a list of all the lobbyists he had met with since
1989. At least 40 of the people Kerry listed as having lobbied him were individuals
who didn't register--and may not have been required to do so. Only those who
spend at least one-fifth of their time lobbying for their organization are required
Included on Kerry's list were Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation
of Teachers until 2004, Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon.
Between cocktails, lunches and Senate office meetings, Kerry met with these
three people 10 times since 1998. And even though they represented their organizations,
they were not required to register to lobby.
The offices that track lobbyist disclosure, the Legislative Resource Center
of the House of Representatives and the Senate Office of Public Records, lack
adequate staff to monitor the forms submitted to the House and Senate. Neither
office has staff dedicated to ensuring compliance with the law.
In 1993, the chairman of the FEC wrote the House Judiciary Subcommittee to
ask that his agency be put in charge of all lobbying disclosure. "All these
functional activities are requirements of regulating campaign finance and we
already have developed the type of staff expertise, procedures, physical plant
and information technology necessary," FEC Chairman Scott Thomas wrote
in addressing pending legislation. Two years later, when the Lobbying Disclosure
Act was enacted, Congress decided to keep lobbying disclosure within its purview.
In 2003, the Center compared the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act to the lobbying
disclosure rules in all 50 states and found that 47 states had better standards
of disclosure than the federal government. Currently, Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.)
is looking to reform the Lobbying Disclosure Act, including by requiring reporting
about grassroots efforts and lists of lobbying coalition members.
Over the years there have been various calls for lobbying reform, including
everything from a bill that would increase the time that federal workers would
have to wait before lobbying their old bosses to a provision that would make
it illegal to send "fraudulent" lobbying communications to Congress.
Yet lobbyists who often oppose one another in the rough and tumble of backroom
legislative battles have by and large united against more regulations over their
industry. And for the 535 members of Congress and the 30,000 people who serve
on their staffs, lobbying is often a lucrative career option. Some 240 former
members of Congress and agency heads were registered lobbyists, according to
the Center's analysis. In all, more than 2,200 people registered as lobbyists
in Washington during the period covered used to work for the federal government
in some capacity.
On the rare occasions when Congress has tried to rein in those who go from
the government's payroll to working for private interests, its efforts have
been narrowly focused.
"The real problem here is one of appearance--the appearance of a revolving
door between government service and private-sector enrichment," Sen. Robert
Dole remarked when the Senate debated the Lobby Disclosure Act in 1995. Dole
referred to one type of federal official: those who worked for the U.S. Trade
Representative's office, which negotiates trade agreements with foreign governments.
In its first investigative report, released in December 1990, the Center for
Public Integrity documented that 47 percent of those officials went on to lobby
for foreign interests after leaving government service.
Dole called for a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments by the nation's
top trade officials. "Service as a high government official is a privilege,
not a right," he said. "This amendment may discourage some individuals
from accepting the U.S.T.R. job, but in my view, this is a small price to pay
when the confidence of the American people is at stake."
After graciously accepting his defeat in the 1996 presidential election, Dole
bowed out of politics and went on to a lucrative career working for Washington
lobby firms. The former Senate majority leader is now a registered lobbyist
who has represented the government of Indonesia.
Alex Knott is political editor at the Center for Public Integrity.