IT’S WELL KNOWN within the beltway (and probably suspected from outside it) that most lobbying activity is off the record, hidden from the public eye. When the GAO finds in its annual audit of lobbying disclosure reports that, for instance, 97 percent of lobbyists reported their income and expenses in 2012, the few of us who read such banal compositions have to chuckle, as if to say “yeah, 97 percent of registered lobbyists.”
It’s a plain fact that the so-called “influence industry” isn’t only comprised of registered lobbyists, and that recorded expenditures only make up a portion of what lobbyists are actually spending. The rest of this money remains “dark,” “underground,” or whichever nefarious adjective fits the occasion. But has anyone ever wondered how much is actually hidden?
Political Science Professor Tim LaPira has. In his latest blog post for the Sunlight Foundation, LaPira takes Lobbyists.info data to estimate total lobbying expenditures in 2012. The current figure, which only accounts for legally disclosed spending, is $3.31 billion. LaPira estimates that over twice that – an eye-watering $6.7 billion – was actually spent last year.
The magnitude of $6.7 billion is generously put into context:
Let’s put that number in perspective: For every one member of Congress, the influence industry produces about $12.5 million in lobbying. By comparison, the average 2012 budget for member [sic.] of the House of Representative’s office was only $1.3 million. So, in 2012—a presidential election year, in a down economy, during arguably the least productive Congress ever—“government relaters” accounted for more than nine times the typical House member’s official operating expenses.
Whether LaPira’s findings are accurate is unknowable. His calculations rely on the unfalsifiable assumption that lobbyists operating outside of the disclosure framework – “stealth” lobbyists, as he calls them – are spending just as much as their compliant peers. Still, if LaPira’s estimate were off by as much as $2 billion, there remain billions that are being spent unaccountably and with insouciance for the law. That’s concerning.