Posts Tagged ‘GAO’

The Book Behind Current Lobbying Law

Friday, 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.

Lobbyists.info Data Reveal $3.6 Billion in Undisclosed Expenditures

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

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.

Ethics Unraveling: On Compliance and Complacency

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013 by Vbhotla

LAST WEEK, this blogger wrote on how the government is cracking down on illegal foreign lobbying. In July, the feds came down on Biassi Business Services, Inc. for failing to disclose domestic lobbying activities.  Such cases are usually settled, and in the fifteen years between 1995 and 2010, the U.S. attorney’s office settled with just three lobbyists. In the past three years alone, however, the attorney’s office settled three more cases.

At LobbyBlog, we’ve noticed a general cycle that forms around lobbying violations and the inevitable government crackdown. The cycle kicks off when a scandal erupts, then perpetrators are punished and the government enacts beefier regulations. This happened in 2007 following the Abramoff scandal with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA).

For a while, lobbyists are on their best behavior (reports from the GAO show that filings increased significantly following HLOGA), but within a few years they start to get complacent, resulting in increased violations, as has been the case since 2010 and particularly as of late.  After complacency comes scandal, and then another crackdown.

We are currently in the middle of the complacency stage, and the federal government is taking notice. If the cycle holds true, a scandal may erupt at any moment.

Despite the recent decline in lobbying, there are more than enough lobbyists who will continue to skirt the law until, once again, the federal government steps in and the cycle begins anew.  The shrewd veteran lobbyist will know when it’s unwise to misbehave.

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Congressman Mixes Million with Billion

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

IN AN APRIL report by the Government Accountability Office, a quarter of registered lobbyists were cited as having failed to disclose their income and expenditures to the nearest $10,000.  Last week, the second wealthiest Member of Congress, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), made an error on his financial disclosure that makes a $10,000 miscalculation appear astoundingly accurate.  The Congressman, who derives most of his wealth from his wife, the daughter of Clear Channel Communications Chairman Lowry Mayes and sister of Clear Channel CEO Mark Mays, affixed three extra zeros to an asset listed as “Harding Loevner Funds Inc.”

Two days after listing the asset at $1,000,000,000, McCaul filed an amendment asking the Clerk of the House to change this number to $1,000,000.  “[I]t was the intent that the column should read $1,000,000,” writes McCaul.  It’s thus not without humor that one revisits The Hill’s deadpan explanation that such an amendment “reduc[es] the congressman’s wealth dramatically under The Hill’s methodology.”  It’s hoped for the sake of general numeracy that under anyone’s methodology would $1 million appear $999 million shy of $1 billion.