Lobbying industry not dying, only moving deep underground

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The lobbying industry might disappear, at least on paper.

January records show for the third consecutive year, the comprehensive spending on lobbyists decreased, reports Lee Fang in The Nation.  Add to that the numbers of lobbyists that continue to deregister; registered lobbyists dropped to 12,281 in 2013, the lowest number since 2002.

Despite word if its demise, some experts believe lobbying isn’t becoming extinct; it’s only going underground.

“Most of what is going on in Washington is not covered” by the current lobbyist-registration system, according to American University professor James Thurber.

Thurber has spent more than three decades examining congressional lobbying as an advisor to the reform task force for the American Bar Association; his research suggests the actual number of working lobbyists is closer to 100,000.

The combination of a loophole-ridden law, meager enforcement efforts, an increasingly sophisticated strategy permitting third parties to develop “AstroTurf” faux-grassroots campaigns, as well as White House executive orders that dissuaded lobbyists from registering all combined to collapse the system designed to track federal lobbying.

Officially, $3.2 billion was spent on lobbying in 2013, but Thurber estimates the actual number closer to more than $9 billion, Fang writes. Other experts may suggest similar numbers, but no one truly knows how large the industry has grown.

Shadow lobbying could be as high as twice the size officially reported, says Sunlight Foundation lobbying expert Lee Drutman.

The Nation reviewed trade association documents, political consulting reports and bankruptcy filings, uncovering amounts that many of America’s largest corporations spent – much more than officially disclosed.

In fact, quarterly registration system reports — the information made available to the public and journalists — is only about one-tenth of the amount actually spent by firms to gain favorable treatment in Washington D.C.

Instead of the word “lobbying,” often the influence industry will use the rubrics “government affairs” or “government relations,”  the same re-branding embraced by the American League of Lobbyists — the professional association for the influence industry — when it changed its name last year to the Association of Government Relations Professionals.

Unsurprisingly, those who work on the outskirts of “lobbying” are frequently getting the biggest paydays.

One example, Fang notes, is Apple’s Catherine Novelli, former VP of “worldwide government affairs,” who earned more than $7.5 million in 2013 by helping the company address congressional inquiries into alleged tax-dodging – all without officially registering as a lobbyist.

Deborah Lee James, at one time the government affairs VP at SAIC, a major defense contractor, earned nearly $1 million in 2013 — also unregistered.

Much of this “grassroots” advocacy falls outside the scope of the definitions in the Lobbying Disclosure Act—the regulations that few lawmakers are interested in reforming.

 

 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.