History Matters

April 15th, 2014 by James Cameron

THOSE WHO CANNOT REMEMBER the past…cannot lobby effectively. That’s why Lobbyists.info recently unveiled its latest feature: historical links between staffers, federal lobbyists, and members of Congress going back to 1987.  Since lobbyists’ connections to lawmakers can matter just as much as their skills and experience, this is a crucial resource.

Why are these historical links so valuable?  For one, lawmakers are staying on the Hill for longer than they used to.  A report by the Federation of American Scientists found that the average years of service for members of the 113th Congress is 9.1 for the House and 10.2 for the Senate.  If you want to lobby on a piece of legislation before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and a lobbyist you’re thinking of hiring was a staffer for Henry Waxman in 1993, then that historical link may play a crucial role in picking the right advocate.

With the revolving door between staffers and lobbyists spinning at cyclone speed, the links between former staffers and Congress have become vital to understanding the influence game.  It’s increasingly clear that understanding these historical links can give advocates a leg up on the competition.

McCutcheon’s Effect on Lobbyists

April 7th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

WHATEVER ONE’S VIEWS on the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCutcehon v. FEC, there’s one incontrovertable fact: lobbyists will suffer.

According to CNN, “lobbyists fret that the ruling could mean they’ll be on the hook to hand over even more campaign cash to lawmakers.”

POLITICO added that these lobbyists “are already inundated by fundraising calls from lawmakers, email solicitations and events that fill their calendars for breakfasts, lunches and dinners in the run-up to the quarterly deadlines.”

The Hill called the decision “groan-inducing” for lobbyists, noting that the aggregate limits had until now acted as “a ready-made excuse for turning down fundraising appeals.”

Of course, not everyone is extending their pity.  Huffington Post blogger Jason Linkins bitterly remarked that these complaints teach only that “there is no greater disadvantage in life than having all the advantages.”

Yet virtually nobody is challenging the fact that lobbyists will be expected to pony up a larger share of their income in the years ahead.  Perhaps a collective reluctance will help minimize the damage.

20,391…

April 2nd, 2014 by James Cameron

…the number of GR professionals in D.C., according to data collected for Lobbyists.info.  This makes the nation’s capital the number one city in the U.S. for lobbyists.

Two D.C. suburbs take a distant second and third.  Alexandria and Arlington, Va., boast 1,272 and 1,258 GR professionals, respectively.

The drop-off is considerable between No. 4 New York (1,162) and No. 5 Chicago (299).  Rounding out the top 10 are Sacramento, Calif. (292); Boston (279); Bethesda, Md., (255, and another D.C. suburb); Austin Texas (248); and McClean, Va. (214).  Overall there are 1,884 U.S. cities where at least one GR professional is located.

More state capitals that make the top 50: Atlanta (166); Indianapolis (148); Harrisburg (147); Albany (147); Tallahassee (128); Phoenix (114); Raleigh (122); Madison (105); Lansing (101); Richmond (92); Baton Rouge (78); Annapolis (75); Oklahoma City (74); Nashville (69); and St. Paul (67).

‘Tis the Season to Fly-in

March 31st, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

BARRING ERRATIC WEATHER, it’s around this time of the year when the D.C. area thaws and blossoms and bustles again.  Included in this resurgence are the droves of advocates who partake in the annual pilgrimage known as the fly-in.

Yet unlike a pilgrimage, conscripts are expected to do more than mere ritual.  There’s a craft to advocacy for which even once-a-year novices are not exempt.  That means fly-in organizers must ensure their advocates are properly prepared, lest their collective efforts amount to no more than a field trip.

Stephanie Vance of Advocacy Associates has made it part of her job to instruct fly-in organizers.  In a sense, she trains the trainers.  Earlier this month, Vance conducted a webinar for Lobbyists.info titled “Preparing Advocates for Fly-ins,” in which she detailed, among other things,  how to educate advocates on congressional procedure.

Without spoiling the program (available for purchase here), Vance promotes a balanced approach to fly-in prep in which advocates are taught the essentials without being bogged down by procedural minutiae.  Remind advocates of how bills are passed, Vance argues, but don’t exceed the basic tenets of Schoolhouse Rock.  This approach helps avoid the sort of confusion that would only serve to confound and frustrate an already anxious group.  It also frees advocates to direct their attention where it’s most needed, which is not in general procedure but rather in specific policy issues.

Vance covers much more ground than this, but it all links to the same general message: if you’re hoping for a successful fly-in, learn how to train your advocates.

The Return of Enforcement

March 26th, 2014 by James Cameron

NO ONE ENJOYS filling out paperwork, but if you’re a lobbyist, failure to do so can be costly. The Washington Post reported last week that Alan Mauk and his firm, Alan Mauk Associates, failed to file required quarterly lobbying reports at least 13 times in the past four years—an indiscretion that carries a hefty price of up to $200,000 per violation. The civil complaint filed against Mauk and his firm is the latest of several lawsuits the government has filed in the past year as a result of negligence.

Back in June, the Blog of the Legal Times reported that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia slapped Biassi Business Services Inc., a consulting firm based in New York, with a  lawsuit that could cost the firm up to $33 million in fines. Biassi reportedly filed several disclosures for 2012 and 2013 after the lawsuit was filed, and it remains to be seen how much of the fine Biassi will ultimately have to pay.

But lobbyists aren’t merely being fined for domestic lobbying violations. In August, this blogger wrote on how federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against two lobbyists for alleged violations of U.S. sanctions and the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by lobbying on behalf of Zimbabwe and its president, Robert Mugabe. Likewise, in 2011, a lobbyist was charged with FARA violations for failing to disclose lobbying activities for a foreign entity.

So, why are we just recently seeing the Feds come down hard on disclosure violators? As noted before on this blog, between 1995 and 2010 the U.S. Attorney’s Office settled with just three lobbyists, yet since 2010 there have been at least five lawsuits filed related to HLOGA and FARA violations.

One explanation is that we’re entering the enforcement stage of a cycle that begins with complacency (itself a symptom of lax enforcement) and ends in scandal. With the lobbying industry moving underground, it’s only a matter of time before a lobbyist or firm stretches the current rules too far, at which point we may see a successor to HLOGA.  Until then, we’ve yet to experience the kind of enforcement that these laws originally intended.  But it looks as if we’re getting closer.

8 Terms to Describe the Lobbying Landscape

March 21st, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

THE PRESS HAS employed a unique terminology to describe recent trends in federal lobbying.  Replete with shadows and suspicion, here are eight terms readers are likely to encounter:

DASCHLE LOOPHOLE – The details of current federal lobbying law that allow de facto lobbyists to legally to go unregistered.  The loophole’s namesake is former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who currently lobbies for DLA Piper yet calls himself a “Policy Advisor.”

DEACTIVATE -  to remove oneself from disclosure responsibilities by going UNDER THE RADAR. (Not to be confused with DEREGISTER).

DEREGISTER -  to remove oneself from disclosure responsibilities by terminiating lobbying contracts.  Since there is no deregistration paperwork, lobbyists are considered formally deregistered when they terminate all of their contracts. (Not to be confused with DEACTIVATE).

SHADOW LOBBYIST – A term used to designate a de facto lobbyist who is not legally registered.

STRATEGIC ADVICE – A cunning alternative to “lobbying” that can allow de facto lobbyists to go UNDER THE RADAR.  “Consulting” is another popular choice, although one can obviously act as a consultant or strategic advisor without actively lobbying (i.e., there’s a distinction between genuine consultants and lobbyists who merely call themselves consultants).  Asked about his lobbying for Freddie Mac, Newt Gingrich claimed that he was hired by the company as a “historian.”

UNDERGROUND – To go “underground” is to go “UNDER THE RADAR,” although the former is more commonly used as an alternative explanation for a recent decline in the number of registered lobbyists.  Many in the press had originally attributed this decline to a general descent of lobbying.  Closer examination revealed that lobbyists hadn’t left town, nor had they left work–they had simply “gone underground.”

UNDER THE RADAR – The status of a de facto lobbyist who is not legally registered.  Someone who works “under the radar” is operating through the DASCHLE LOOPHOLE.

UNLOBBYIST – Short for “underground lobbyist,” “unlobbyist” is synonymous with SHADOW LOBBYIST.

Camp vs. Washington

March 6th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

DAVE CAMP’S (R-Mich.) raison d’etre is to change the way Washington does taxes.  Washington’s is not to change at all.

Last week, Camp revealed plans for the Tax Reform Act of 2014, which aims to simplify the current tax code by reducing the number of tax brackets and significantly scaling back deductions and exemptions that The Economist claims “leak $1 trillion in revenue a year and make compliance a nightmare.”

As good as these proposals sound (despite many kinks), essential to the political terrain of Washington are two insurmountable obstacles that will keep them from becoming law.  The first is partisanship.  Neither party is in the habit of giving a passing thought to tax reform without strings attached.  The Democrats want to see their projects funded and the Republicans won’t consider higher revenue.

The second obstacle is what this blogger is for the first time calling “special interests.”  The term is misused, abused, and overworked for a variety of reasons, but applies quite nicely to the special treatment afforded to certain groups and industries through tax preferences.  Anyone who currently enjoys such treatment is vehemently against the bill.  The National Association of Realtors, a lobbying powerhouse, is “extremely disappointed.”  The Private Equity Growth Capital Council also finds it all “so disappointing.”  These groups enjoy the mortgage interest and carried interest deductions respectively, two features of the status quo that Camp would like to see vanish.

Since Camp’s logic is to simplify brackets, widen the base, and patch the leaks caused by preferences, the bill is expected to generate revenue. The House Joint Committee on Taxation predicts that, were the bill to pass, it would generate an extra $3 billion in the next decade.  Sadly, however, Camp’s most vocal opponents don’t care much for its overall impact.  They care about their industry, and that’s enough to keep them going.  As one reads this, “a tribe of lobbyists is pressing conservatives to snuff Camp’s proposal, threatening to withhold precious campaign dollars.”  Such is the fate of someone who dares challenge Washington.

Not Their Finest Hour

February 28th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

THE “SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP” between the U.S. and U.K. is defined by many shared characteristics, the most salient being a common tongue and a commitment to democracy.  Such a bond is more than just quaint: similarities make it easy for one country to learn from the mistakes of the other.  Noah Webster, for example, famously purged American spelling of much of its inherited inconsistencies.

Yet last month, when “The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill” became an Act of Parliament (law), the U.K. proved that it hasn’t learned a thing about the ongoing blunder that is U.S. lobbying law.

The law, apparently modeled on HLOGA, establishes a registrar to enforce lobbying registration and imposes limits on campaign spending for non political parties (trade associations, faith groups, etc.). Critics have been quick to pounce.  The measure has already earned a negative reputation as the “gagging law” for its arbitrary restrictions on the freedom of association, the same alarm that’s still being sounded on this side of the Atlantic.  The EU Observer calls it “misdirected,” and predicts that it will “further cleanse the political sphere not of corruption, but of the public itself.”

The Nottingham Post’s reaction to restrictions on non-party campaigning, which is the most contentious part of the law and which will be enforced in the run-up to elections–”crazy.”   “The run-up to elections is just the time we want to have our say. That is the time we want to have debates in public space about what matters to us down our streets and in our playgrounds and workplaces.”  Ekklesia, a Christian political think tank, is even more indignant, predicting the law will  “gravely damage democracy and human rights.”

How can such flawed legislation achieve Royal Assent?  The EU Observer summarized it beautifully, writing that proponents must rely on the “transforming [of] a democratic right such as lobbying…into an object of suspicion.”  Congress has been there, done that, and active citizens are still facing the consequences.  It’s a shame that Parliament has opted for a similar fate.

Wage War

February 27th, 2014 by James Cameron

PRESIDENT OBAMA HAS called the proposed federal minimum wage hike “giving America a raise,” but whether the legislation succeeds or not, lobbyists are likely to enjoy a windfall.  Raising the minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25/hr to $10.10/hr is a centerpiece of congressional Democrats’ 2014 legislative agenda, and groups on both sides of the issue have already spent millions of lobbying dollars to influence lawmakers on the fence.  With recent news that a vote on the legislation will be put off, lobbying campaigns for both sides are heating up.

The Hill reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has delayed a vote on the legislation as support for the hike has waned among vulnerable congressional Democrats. A coalition of labor unions and liberal advocacy groups has hailed the move, saying that it gives them time to mount a national grassroots lobbying campaign to drum up support for the legislation.

Vowing to fight the bill are numerous retail, restaurant, and service organizations. The American Hotel & Lodging Association, which overhauled its lobbying team last year, strongly opposes a minimum wage hike, claiming that it would inhibit companies’ ability to hire more workers.

Complicating the issue is the difficulty of sifting through a myriad of reports from disparate sources to piece together an accurate picture of the hike’s potential impact. Although it seems likely that the Congressional Budget Office’s recent report that the hike could cost as many as 500,000 minimum wage jobs but increase earnings for more than 16.5 million workers is accurate and nonpartisan, data from other sources may be suspect. The New York Times reports that some nonprofits and think tanks that publish economic reports on legislation are in fact funded (often secretly) by groups with a significant stake in the legislation. The Employment Policies Institute, for example, has published academic reports warning that raising the minimum wage would adversely impact poverty, unemployment, and the economy. But the Times also notes that the group is run by a PR firm that also represents the restaurant industry, which strongly opposes the wage hike. Just as lobbying has gradually moved underground and become more opaque, so too are groups attempting to influence policy in nebulous and indirect ways, as the current fight over the minimum wage illustrates.

Although the Congressional battle over “America’s raise” has been delayed for now, the lobbying fight over the wage hike has just begun. With heavy hitters like Wal-Mart still out of the fray, the battle is likely to get even more intense before it’s over.

The Book Behind Current Lobbying Law

February 21st, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

THE LATEST EDITION of The Nation has as its cover story a detailed expose of what it calls “the shadow lobbying complex,” an issue explored at great length in this blog.  While reading the article and delighting in its infographics, this blogger decided that a brief timeline of modern disclosure laws would make for an interesting post.

And so I began with the summer of 1935, when Rep. Denis Driscoll (D-Pa.) received 816 telegrams from constituents pleading him to oppose a measure that would break up the utility trust companies, which were then being run by a handful of remarkably wealthy men.  The telegrams would have made for an impressive case study in lobbying from the bottom up, or “grassroots lobbying,” except for one important detail: the constituents behind the telegrams were completely fabricated.  The whole thing was a sham, conjured together and funded by the utility companies.

This incident and the broader debate surrounding the Wheeler-Rayburn Utility Holding Company Act set the gears in motion for modern disclosure law, which today is ridiculed as an utter failure.  Were I actually to have posted a timeline of lobbying disclosure, I might have used just five dates:

  1. 1946: The Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act is passed as a late response to the utility company debate
  2. 1991: the GAO exposes the law’s shortcomings
  3. 1999: The Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) is passed as a second try
  4. 2006: Jack Abramoff reports to prison, proving LDA a failure
  5. 2007: The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) is passed as a third try, a significant amendment to LDA that adds criminal sanctions and stricter reporting requirements

Yet this would appear a very lopsided timeline, with  nearly half a century separating the first two dates.  Did nothing relevant transpire between the passage of The Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act and the GAO report that deemed it a failure?

In fact, something did.  In 1977, a book was published that would become the basis for the GAO’s report.  According to The Nation, the report found that “10,000 lobbyists listed in an industry guidebook had failed to register. Of those who had, as many as 94 percent failed to complete their registration forms as required by law.” This “industry guidebook” just happens to be Washington Representatives, a Lobbyists.info publication entering its 37th year.  If one accepts The Nation’s claim that the GAO report was the “impetus” for LDA, and former Rep. Charles Canady’s (R-Fla.) assertion that the Washington Representative’s finding “underscored” the need for LDA, then to a significant extent Washington Representatives is responsible for LDA.  The innumerable ironies that come packed with this are too rich and detailed for this blog.  Needless to say it’s a fascinating discovery.

Candy Gets No Love From Washington

February 14th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

THE CANDY HEART: to a smitten valentine, it means love; to a sugar farmer, it means profit.  What, pray, does it mean for “Big Candy”?

Considering the retail statistics, which put candy well in front of flowers and jewelery (yet slightly behind cards) as one of the most commonly purchased Valentines Day gifts, the candy industry is just as much a winner on the 14th as the sugar that coats its products.

So why are candy lobbyists (yes, they exist) making a fuss on what for them should be a day of celebration?  The heavy snowfall certainly didn’t help.  Many who would have happily purchased candy yesterday instead took up the shovel, bravely straining their back against nature’s caprice.

But weather is only part of the story. Candy is mostly cranky because of the farm bill.  Even with confectionary sales on the rise and profit margins of over 12% through 2013, the candy industry despises the fact that sugar prices are still being propped up by cushy subsidies, tariffs, and production quotas.  A recent House amendment that sought to chip away at this antiquated policy lost by slim margins in both the House and Senate.   According to the LA Times:

…the House amendment would have passed easily if not for opposition from 74 lawmakers from states with no sugar growers, as well as 30 House members from California who have no sugar growers or refiners in their districts. That’s a testament to the lobbying muscle of sugar growers…

As evidenced by its name, the Coalition for Sugar Reform vocally opposes current policy, which it claims costs billions of dollars every year.  The chairman of the coalition, Larry Graham of the National Confectioners Association, said in a statement that “the impact of sugar policy is felt everywhere, from local food manufacturers to the grocery store aisle to the kitchen table. Now is the time to make a change.”

That statement must have been penned before the defeat of the House amendment, which effectively dashed the hopes of confectioners to make Valentines Day a twofold victory: one of both big sales and big policy changes.

Which leads us back to the candy heart: to a bachelor it means disappointment and melancholy; to a candy lobbyist it means, well, pretty much the same.

Revolving Door Spinning at Cyclone Speed

February 10th, 2014 by James Cameron

IT’S WELL KNOWN in Washington that congressional staffers tend to be underpaid and overworked. One might assume that they accept these conditions in exchange for the connections and prestige that Congress affords. Increasingly, however, the motivation is a lucrative job on K Street.

Despite HLOGA, more than 1,650 former Congressional aides have registered to lobby less than a year after leaving Congress, according to the New York Times. These freshly-minted lobbyists often return to the Hill to lobby on the very legislation that they worked on while they were staffers. The rules that intended to prevent this “revolving door” effect are so weak, particularly in the House, as to be practically nonexistent. As the Times points out, former House staffers can avoid the one-year moratorium on lobbying as long as their salaries are less than the paltry sum of $130,500.

In fact, restrictions on the revolving door have been so easily circumvented that, according to the Sunlight Foundation, the number of registered lobbyists with previous government experience actually peaked in 2009, two years after the passage of HLOGA. To make matters worse, as LobbyBlog reports, even though lobbying registrations are on the decline, there is a well-known shadow industry of unregistered lobbyists who are working as “strategic advisors” while still technically complying with current disclosure rules. It stands to reason that there are even more former staffers who are “unlobbyists” to whom the current lobbying restrictions don’t apply at all.

So why is this a big deal? The biggest concern is that staffers and members who are eyeing a cushy job on K Street will try to influence legislation to favor their future employers before they even leave Capitol Hill. Indeed, as the Times points out, staffers are often hired because of specific legislation or issue areas on which they worked, and when the turnaround from staffer to lobbyist can be measured in months or even weeks,  the current system’s potential for abuse becomes apparent.

Another Day, Another Hurdle

February 4th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

LOBBYISTS HAVE TAKEN a lot of damage over the years.  Abramoff inflicted a wound that was salted by HLOGA.  Obama campaigned on combating special interests, and landed his first blow by way of executive order.

The obstacles these produce, both real and imagined, make the business of advocacy more challenging than it should be.  Yet lobbyists have reason to enjoy the status quo while it lasts, because things could soon get worse.

According to Karen Hinton, an advocate representing Ecuadorians in a long-standing oil pollution suit against Chevron, lobbyists could soon be vulnerable to racketeering charges by their opposition.  If Chevron wins their case on the grounds that Hinton and others are colluding in a fraudulent lawsuit, then a precedent will be set whereby “hard-hitting press releases and lobbying before Congress and government agencies by (insert you and your client) against (insert your client’s competitors or opponents) about (insert issue that financially benefits your client) could equal extortion and be a violation of the RICO statute.”

RICO stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.  By law, a plaintiff who wins a RICO case “…shall recover threefold the damages he sustains and the cost of the suit.”  Hinton argues that because of this “treble damages” clause, companies and trade associations targeted by RICO cases could go bust.  Pursuing this to its obvious conclusion, advocates with less to spend could be bullied out of lobbying altogether.

That would be bad indeed, and is something for which lobbyists should collectively oppose.

Much Ado About SOTU

January 30th, 2014 by James Cameron

MANY AMERICANS VIEW the State of the Union address as a lot of rhetoric and not much substance.  But for lobbyists and policymakers, what the president does (or doesn’t) say can make or break an issue.

As POLITICO notes, if Obama even briefly mentions an issue or a piece of legislation, it can make the difference between the issue gaining traction in Congress or wasting away. Further, if the President talks about something for which a lobbyist is advocating, it can generate massive credibility for both the lobbyist and his firm, even if they had no part in getting it mentioned in the speech.

Following this year’s speech, for example, LGBT groups were disappointed that Obama made no mention of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban employers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Indeed, Obama barely touched on LGBT issues at all, making only a brief reference to marriage equality.  As the Huffington Post notes, this may be indicative of the administration’s view that it has enough political capital with the LGBT community that it can afford to ruffle some feathers.  The case nonetheless demonstrates both the impact of the SOTU as well as the delicate political maneuvering involved.

Likewise, the guests invited by members of Congress (each lawmaker is allowed one) can have legislative implications for the coming year.  Predictably, as PBS notes, more than a dozen Republican members brought business owners and individuals who were negatively impacted by the Affordable Care Act.  By the same token, Democrats brought guests who benefitted from the ACA.  Democrats (especially the Illinois delegation) also brought at least five immigration advocates.  Some lawmakers took a decidedly less conventional approach, though.  POLITICO reports that Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) brought Willie Robertson, star of “Duck Dynasty.”  This blogger wonders if Rep. McAllister will now get to appear on the show.

As with most things in Washington, the State of the Union comes with a side of rhetoric and political bluster.  Although every word of the State of the Union need not have far-reaching policy implications, it’s clear that for lobbyists, policymakers, and political forecasters, the Address can have a significant impact on the year to come.

Retailers Request More Regs

January 24th, 2014 by Geoffrey Lyons

IN WASHINGTON, pressure to regulate big business is no novelty.  But things seem rather topsy-turvy when the source of that pressure is big business itself.

The National Journal explains why retailers have concluded that more federal intervention is a good thing.  At least, that is, when it comes to data.

In the wake of the holiday data breaches, Target and others are “begging Congress to tell them what to do.”  That’s because they’re currently subject to 47 different compliance standards for 46 states plus D.C.  They’d much rather have just one.

But building support for a “unified standard” isn’t easy.  As the Journal notes, “educating conservatives” is the most daunting obstacle. Those with purist laissez-faire sentiments have a visceral dislike for all regulations, so it takes some convincing to disabuse them of the idea that a single standard is “just another nanny-state intrusion into companies’ private affairs.” Even Mary Bono, a former Republican Congresswoman from California and supporter of the standard, admits that the whole thing is “sort of counterintuitive.”

And so it may be. Yet it remains perfectly logical for a behemoth like Target, with 1,797 stores in the U.S. alone, to want to answer to the State and not the states. Another giant, Amazon, has faced a similar challenge with regard to state sales tax.  It seems that for the mega retailers, more government can actually mean less.