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The 'Fourth Branch' of Government

Shadowy lobbyists ignore rules and exploit connections -- and their industry of influence nets almost $13 billion.
 
 
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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 Office.

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 for lobbying.

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 lobbying firms.

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.

Influence Pipeline

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 position.

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 to register.

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.