In The News

Washington lobbyists tapped to bring home the bacon (TC Palm)

July 21, 2011

Americans pay members of Congress $174,000 a year — more than $93 million in all — to represent them in Washington. But taxpayers pay millions more to private lobbyists to promote the interests of their city, school, water district or public college.

More and more state and local institutions are hiring professional lobbyists in Washington — alongside their members of Congress — to bring home the bacon.

Such double representation "really flies in the face of good government," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "Lawmakers are supposed to watch out for the interests of their district. The mayor or county council has the same constituency the congressman does, so if a lobbyist has to step in to help them get money, either one or the other is incompetent."

Public lobbying steadily increased during much of the past decade, with more than 2,300 government and public educational institutions spending more than $1.2 billion in public money to press their causes with the national government. They represent about 2 percent of all state and local governments and special districts, including school districts, and public higher education institutions in the U.S.

Those figures come from a review by Scripps Howard News Service and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The center and its website,, are the nation's most comprehensive resources for federal campaign finance and lobbying data and analysis.

"That's an absolutely outrageous amount that's been taken right out of the pockets of students and state and local taxpayers,'' said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, D.C.

Yearly spending on public-sector lobbying peaked at $135 million in 2008 and 2009, when officials scrambled to tap into the nearly $800 billion stimulus package to fund public works projects and academic programs. Spending dipped slightly to $134.3 million last year, as the national focus moved from stimulus to debt reduction.

Lobbying can be as simple as attending a congressional hearing or calling a federal agency, or as complex as analyzing thousands of pages of legislation. Reporting is required only by those who have multiple contacts with a lawmaker or bureaucrat and devote at least 20 percent of their working hours to lobbying.

The effectiveness of lobbyists — versus the elected officials — is hard to calculate because official lobbying reports identify only how much a lobbyist spends and broad topics of interest. The reports to Congress never reveal exactly who was contracted or the result.

Lobbying overall has been a tremendous growth industry in Washington, with some 13,000 registered lobbyists working for more than 2,000 firms and spending a record $3.5 billion last year for public and private clients.

That's likely an undercount of lobbyists. "There's a lot of gray areas for advocacy work on issues, and none of the direct contacts by local officials, the fly-ins and delegation lunches, are counted,'' said James Thurber, a professor of government and director at American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. He suggested three times as many people actually lobby in Washington than show up in official registrations.

Many officials insist local and state governments can't rely solely on local lawmakers to watch out for their interests in Washington.

Public officials defend the return on investment for lobbying. The lobbyists collaborate with local congressional delegations to get grants and favorable rule changes worth more than the lobbyist have been paid.

"Lobbying is a cost-effective investment. The clients get more money back than they put into it," said Bill Allison, a spokesman for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving government transparency. "What the universities and local governments are here for is for Washington to show them the money, and it's generally something that works."

Federal lawmakers "have all kinds of stuff coming at them all the time, and they're not really prepared to do the things for local governments that people who criticize lobbying think they should,'' said William Ferguson Jr., CEO of The Ferguson Group, a Washington lobbying firm that represents more than 200 government and related clients.

"We're not a special-interest group to the congressional delegations. We're actually representing their constituency," Ferguson added.

American University's Thurber dismisses the notion that lawmakers are too busy to work on behalf of towns and schools back home: "I don't buy that. They want to get re-elected, so they'll be responsive to local political leaders who seek their help."

But sometimes local governments need lobbying help to form coalitions that might benefit a broader base, said Mario Castillo.

A former chief of staff to the House Agriculture Committee and now head of a small lobbying firm, The Aegis Group, Castillo noted: "You can't go in with a myopic view of just trying to get what you want. Members don't want conflict, they want to solve things, and you have to build coalitions to do that."

Many critics, like Ellis of the taxpayers group, say local lobbyists flourish as part of a money-exchange: Lobbyists donate part of their proceeds from local governments to members of Congress, who in turn steer money to those same local entities.

"The lawmakers do what they were supposed to do anyway, and the only ones who lose are the local and federal taxpayers," Ellis said.

Last year, lawmakers tucked nearly 9,500 earmarks — special projects worth $15.9 billion — into a $3.8 trillion budget that left intact most programs supporting local governments.

But Congress has put a moratorium on earmarks this year and next, responding to criticism that earmarks favor special interests. With that and deficit-reduction goals, heavy cuts are expected in federal allocations for many domestic programs over the next several years.

While some jurisdictions question the value of continued professional lobbying, many more are digging deep to keep lobbyists who can help them preserve grants and subsidies for local governments and schools.

Lobbying by public colleges and universities has been particularly robust, growing from $10 million in 1998 to more than $44 million last year. Many larger schools have their own offices and staff in Washington plus outside lobbyists for specific issues.

First-quarter reports filed with Congress show many public colleges continuing to pay for lobbying at a pace similar to last year's, while others reduced the number of firms they're using.

The Sunlight Foundation's Allison said many lobbyists have told him there still will be ways to steer special projects or grants to local and state clients and they're hustling to find them."The money may not be coming through Congress anymore; it may be coming through the executive branch," he said. "But everybody's trying to figure out what this new system is and make it work for their clients."

Scripps Howard national correspondent Thomas Hargrove and Texas reporter Trish Choate contributed to this story.

Washington lobbyists tapped to bring home the bacon (TC Palm)

Weekly Wastebasket

Our weekly reality-check for federal spending. View All

October 20, 2017

Farming for Cash Behind Closed Doors

At Taxpayers for Common Sense we work with everyone. Unless they don’t want to work with us, which is... Read More