WASHINGTON, May 19, 2014 — The Washington association that lobbies for lobbyists wants to change its name, eliminating the word “lobbyist.” The American League of Lobbyists has decided to call itself the “Association of Government Relations Professionals.”
In a letter to the group’s 1,200 members, association president Monte Ward noted that, “The new brand will seek to fully represent the broad range of responsibilities that a government relations professional practices daily.”
Groups often change their names when those names become a burden. In 2006, the Association of Trial Lawyers became the American Association for Justice. But the negative role of lobbyists in today’s political environment cannot so simply be removed from public view.
Politics is about battling over scarce government resources: who gets them, where, when, why, and how. The Washington Post estimates that in recent years there have been 13,700 registered lobbyists in a capitol “teeming with lobbyists.” The Guardian reports that, in addition to the registered lobbyists, there are probably thousands of unregistered lobbyists in Washington.
The ratio of lobbyists employed by the health care industry to every elected politician was six to one.
Wall Street lobbyists and the financial industry spent at least $100 million in one year to court regulators and lawmakers who were finalizing new regulations for lending, trading and debit card fees. JPMorgan Chase has an in-house team of lobbyists who spent $3.3 million in a recent, typical year. In that same year, the American Bankers Association spent $4.6 million on lobbying.
A trade group representing hedge funds spent more than $1 million in one quarter to influence financial regulations, including an effort to try to change a rule that would have demanded greater disclosure requirements for funds. Amazon.com spent $450,000 in one quarter to lobby against a possible online sales tax as well as rules about data protection and privacy.
Aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which has major defense contracts, pours millions into lobbying: Between January and September 2011, Boeing spent $12 million lobbying, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics. Additionally, Boeing has its own political action committee that donated more than $2.2 million to federal candidates during the 2010 election cycle.
According to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to a series of violations of the law, one of the best ways to “get what he wanted” was to offer high-ranking congressional aides high-paying jobs after they left public office.
When such a promise of future employment was accepted, according to Abramoff, “we owned them.”
His own conviction on corruption charges led to the convictions of 20 lobbyists and public officials, including Rep. Robert Ney and former deputy Interior Secretary Stephen Griles.
Abramoff represented an Indian casino that was worried about the possible negative impact of legislation on its gambling business. Abramoff lobbied actively against his own casino client as a way to increase their fears of adverse legislation.
He also over-billed his clients and violated rules about giving gifts to members of Congress.
Abramoff may be an extreme case, but lobbyists working within the letter of the law often subvert our system of representative government in other ways. Lobby groups, for example, sometimes write legislation, which is then submitted by members of Congress.
Bloomberg News reports that lobbying is a “sound money making strategy for the 20 largest federal contractors.
“The largest contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., received almost $40 billion in federal contracts in 2003-2004 and spent $16 million on lobbying expenses and campaign donations. For each dollar of lobbying investment, the firm received $2,517 in revenues.”
Perhaps most shocking is the revolving door between Congress and the lobbying industry. There was a time when members of Congress who were retired or defeated went home. Some still do. But more and more do not.
Public Citizen reports that the lucrative world of K Street means that former members of Congress with even “modest seniority” can move into jobs paying $1 million or more annually.
In 2005, Public Citizen published a report titled, “The Journey From Congress to K Street.” It found that since 1998, 43 percent of the 198 members of Congress who left government to join private life have registered to lobby. A similar report from the Center for Responsible Politics found 370 former members were in the “influence peddling industry,” with 285 officially registered as federal lobbyists and 85 others who were described as providing “strategic advice” or “public relations” to corporate clients.
These include Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.
In one case, Bob Livingston of Louisiana stepped down as speaker-elect and resigned his seat in 1999. In the six years since his resignation, The Livingston Group grew into the 12th largest non-law lobbying firm, earning nearly $40 million by the end of 2004. During the same time period, Livingston, his wife, and two PACs contributed over $500,000 to various campaigns.
It is not only former members of Congress who move on to lobbying. A 2011 study found that nearly 5,400 former congressional staff members had become federal lobbyists over a 10-year period.
Former Rep. Richard Gephardt in 2007 began his own lobbying firm called “Gephardt Government Affairs Group.” In 2010 it earned close to $7 million with clients like Goldman Sachs, Boeing and Visa. Senators Robert Bennett and Byron Dorgan became lobbyists as did former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.
Senator Trent Lott didn’t wait for retirement to become a lobbyist; he resigned from the Senate to do so.
In 2010, former Rep. Billy Tauzin earned $11 million running the drug industry’s lobbying organization, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. When he was in Congress, he was chairman of a committee regulating the same industry.
Barry Hessenius, in “Hardball Lobbying for Nonprofits,” writes, “The structure of representative government, elected by the people, was to be our system’s built-in protection of the whole of us, fairly elected office-holders were to represent their constituent groups, free from any obligations to special interests. Unfortunately, money has corrupted the system and compromised both the fairness of the electoral process as well as the independence and impartiality of elected officials.”
Lawrence Lessig, professor at Harvard Law School and author of “Republic Lost,” suggests that the money and persuasive power of special interests has insinuated itself between the people and the lawmakers. He quoted Rep. Jim Cooper who said that Congress had become a “Farm League for K Street” in the sense that members of Congress were focused on lucrative lobbying careers after Congress rather than on serving the public interest while in Congress.
Americans often wonder why their government seems out of control and why we cannot stop subsidizing large corporations, or agricultural conglomerates, or failed banks. Perhaps a careful look at the role played by lobbyists, and the millions of dollars they invest in promoting the interests of their clients, will point us in the right direction.
Unfortunately, members of Congress who look forward to a large payoff on K Street after public service are unlikely to resist the influence of lobbyists and those they represent.
The American League of Lobbyists may change its name, but its role in challenging the very essence of genuinely representative government is likely to continue, to the detriment of us all.