“Q3 LOBBYINGEXPENDITURESDOWN,” “Lobbing Spending to Rebound in 2014,” “K St. Outlays Dip in December,” – such headlines splash across the pages of Washington-based newspapers. It has become so routine to discuss the business of lobbying exclusively in these terms that one feels the itch to challenge convention and to pose the following question: can expenditures stand alone as a reliable measure of advocacy’s vitality?
The answer is obviously no, which most people with a critical eye on Washington lobbying recognize . The shrewd reporter will temper his headline with subtler analysis, explaining, for instance, how the de-registration phenomenon (so frequently discussed in this blog) distorts the data, and supplying opinions of industry leaders apt to tell a story that contradicts the numbers.
Yet the appeal to quarterly spending has become so common, has sunk so deeply into the collective consciousness, that it may be corroding our understanding of how lobbying really functions. Firstly, much as money matters on K St., success is often rooted in the intangibles. Making new contacts, for example, and cultivating existing ones. These things often precede spending both in time and in importance, and they’re difficult, if impossible, to measure.
Secondly, even if spending were as important as it’s typically portrayed, it doesn’t follow that it’s best divided into neat three-month and one-year increments, as it is now by virtue of disclosure requirements. Some issues take years to appear on the legislative calendar–it’d be ludicrous to claim that everything is on the same timetable. In fact, the only thing that’s more ludicrous is to assume this is the case, which is precisely the current problem.
Finally, a lobbyists’ success in Washington is strictly bounded by the political environment in which he works. To get something through committee may be a small victory one year and a large one the next. By definition, a “do-nothing Congress” is the sort of setup that renders doing anything a grand success. So, to impose an overworked phrase on the reader, “it’s all relative”–especially in Washington.
Much of this is common knowledge within the beltway. Yet even reminding oneself of what one already knows can be a useful defense against lazy thinking, especially that which tends to overemphasizes the importance of something. And if anything at all tends to be overemphasized by the coterie of reporters covering Washington lobbying (great as they are), it’s the importance of lobbying expenditures. They just don’t matter that much.
EVERY YEAR THE Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that most lobbyists are doing what they’re legally bound to do: register and disclose. Despite some shortcomings – such as failing to round expenses to the nearest $10,000 and neglecting to report formerly held covered positions – lobbyists are a law abiding and diligent bunch. (Registered lobbyists, of course. Many lobbyists are in fact operating beyond the current legal framework).
But this rosy picture does little to deter those tempted to quit compliance all together. Some are asking: why comply? Nobody is getting more than a slap on the wrist for their negligence, so why bother?
An identical question was posed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. against Biassi Business Services Inc., which failed to submit 124 compliance forms and now faces up to $33 million in fines. The oft-repeated criticism that the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) and the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) “lack teeth” was met brusquely by Davidson: “Does a $33 million penalty count as teeth?”
Some may still think not. $33 million is a hefty fine, yes, but 124 repeated offences exceeds negligence and borders on willful disobedience. In fact, this latest case may do very little by way of a warning to lobbyists. If it’s only the “chronic offenders” facing costs for noncompliance, then skipping a disclosure deadline or two will still maintain its appeal. Though compliance is the safest route, people make a good point just by asking “why comply?”
ACCORDING TO THE HILL’SKevin Bogardus, the latest lobbying battle is centered around cats. Big cats. Bogardus reports that
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and other groups are throwing their weight behind the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, which would ban keeping the animals as pets or breeding them for sale.
Public disclosure records reveal that the IFAW hasn’t been throwing much weight behind anything since the mid-90’s, when in 1996 alone it raised half a million dollars and spent, if you’ll pardon the pun, the lion’s share. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act may reverse that trend, bringing IFAW back to the vanguard of animal rights lobbying.
But despite the involvement of animal rights groups, advocates are emphasizing public safety as the measure’s central cause.* The implication is that this approach will enhance the visibility (and ultimately the palatability) of the proposed legislation. The name of the bill is itself a testament to this, in which the bulk of its syllabic frame is occupied by the public safety bit, with “Big Cats” being dispensed with up front and early. Also, there’s no allusion to animal welfare in this designation.
How else is the message being pushed? Metro ads. To LobbyBlog’s readers on K St.: look for images of caged lions and tigers the next time you board at Farragut.
*IFAW says that “in just the past two decades, dangerous incidents involving captive big cats in the U.S. have resulted in the deaths of 22 people (including 5 children); and over 200 additional humans have been mauled or injured.”
“K STREET’S SPRING AWAKENING”is how The Washington Post described the recent blossom of new lobbyist registrations. A formidable batch of 686 registrations were filed in April, just enough to win the three-year record, and more than enough to augur well for those who predict a sprightly Q2. The Post sketches the chronology of lobbying activity as follows: a client hires a firm…a few weeks ensue…said firm registers after their first contact on the Hill…a few weeks ensue…said firm reports fees. Given that typical Q4 hiring seeped into the first months of 2013 (because of the fiscal cliff, as some have claimed), then a full rebound may come later than previous years, reaching its apogee this summer. There’s just one problem: August recess.
All together, too many factors are clouding the usually clear-eyed and credible metric of reported lobbying spending. A decrease in year-to-year spending from 2012-2013 may well result, continuing a trend that began in 2010 and prompting a slew of reporters to herald the demise of traditional lobbying. These tidings, should they come, are best taken with a skeptical eye.
WASHINGTON IS TEEMING with professional lobbyists who make their living by wooing and winning the eyes and ears of policy makers. Yet this week the outsiders are the ones turning heads. Three celebrities will have ambled through the halls of power by week’s end. Former Disney star Demi Lovato sat with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius yesterday at the University of D.C. to honor National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. Friends icon Matthew Perry took to the White House and Congress to champion the efficacy of drug courts. Tonight, Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston and his wife will be honored for their humanitarian work with missing and exploited children. Such events evoke memories of a seminal moment in “celebvocate” history:
OPENSECRETS BLOG recently sketched an unlikely comparison between the political influence of big tobacco and that of education. While the former’s command in Washington has largely waned since the 90’s, the opposite can be said of the education “industry.” Both have gradually become more partisan, tobacco leaning increasingly to the right, and education to the left.
So what actually happened to tobacco? Its demise is explained thusly:
In most election cycles between 1992 and 2002, the majority of the industry’s contributions came in the form of soft money. When the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 banned those contributions beginning with the 2004 cycle, tobacco dropped from 41st to 66th among industries in terms of overall donations, and to this day has not recovered.
Yet records of annual lobbying expenditures indicate a decline that originates well before 2004:
1998 was, after all, what might be considered a watershed year for tobacco. The massive settlement between “Big Tobacco” and 46 attorneys general demanding remuneration for tobacco-related health costs was a huge blow to the indsutry, and included provisions that limited its lobbying activity. For an alphabetical list of industry profiles, visit opensecrets.org/industries/alphalist.php
A DECLINE IN reported lobbying is not always synonymous with a decline in lobbying. Many would argue, as some have in recent weeks, that like a crooked weather vane, disclosure reports are a poor gauge of what they were designed to reveal. The most convincing reason for this is that people are avoiding the whole disclosure apparatus altogether by refraining from registration, and thereby joining the ranks of the underground lobbyists, or “unlobbyists.” This phenomenon distorts the size of the advocacy pool (making it appear smaller than it actually is) and, by extension, the extent of its activity. It’s conceivable that if this trend continues, the “unlobbyist” will no longer prove the exception to the rule.
1) The Obama campaign – Tech innovations from the Obama campaign have improved the efficacy of grassroots advocacy and are rendering the middle man obsolete:
[T]he success of the Obama campaign in advancing computer-driven techniques to reach key segments of the electorate has produced a blossoming industry of digital and specialized communications firms using data analysis, microtechnology and computerized list-building to create public support for or opposition to legislative and policy initiatives – virtually all of which goes effectively undisclosed.
2) The Obama Administration – The administration’s anti-lobbying executive orders have ironically discouraged registration:
Taken together, these regulations have encouraged those interested in public service to find jobs that do not require them to register as lobbyists. Or, put another way, those who are eager for government work are not going to formally register themselves as lobbyists and thus make themselves ineligible.
3) Public Relations – PR is replacing GR as another form of advocacy:
To address diminishing revenues, lobbying firms have created their own public relations operations, subsidiaries with the same goals as the lobbying arm, that charge similarly high fees, but which do not have to be publicly reported to either the House or the Senate.
By using data-driven ads to craft a narrative, we believe that social media does not only have the ability to sell soap, but as we’ve already proven, it can help to get out the vote.
5) SOPA – It’s crushing defeat changed the rules of the game:
The scope of the ongoing upheaval in lobbying was brought home with a vengeance in 2011 and 2012 by the failure of traditional lobbying strategies to win approval of the Stop Online Piracy Act. In early 2011, by all normal standards, the odds were with passage of SOPA….The emergence of a powerful public force outside traditional avenues of influence put fear of elective defeat into the hearts of members of Congress and forced the lobbying community to beef up its own non-traditional tactics….Now, in the lexicon of Washington insiders, the acronym SOPA has become a verb, as in the warning to overconfident legislators: “Don’t get SOPAed.”
6) Social media – A cliche but nonetheless true:
[S]ocial media means almost anyone “can shine a light on” Congressional negotiations, so that company or association pushing an issue can no longer depend on the effectiveness of an old-guard lobbyist with good connections on Capitol Hill.
JACK ABRAMOFF penned an advice column in Businessweek titled “How to Get Your Perk Into a Bill.” “In most cases,” he argues, “you won’t worry about members of Congress who are opposed to you. If you do your job right, they’ll only find out about it once it’s already the law.”
Mark Zuckerberg hired a couple of lobbyists for his new advocacy group. “Zuckerberg is teaming with other Silicon Valley execs like Joe Green to start the group, which is expected to broadly focus on economic issues like immigration and education reform.” The lobbyists were picked up from Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock and Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart.
“I’ve decided not to be the model penitent for your unconstitutional tribunal,” said a gun lobbyist in Colorado before walking out of an ethics investigation exploring whether he violated a rule against intimidating legislators. “Neville [the lobbyist] was escorted from the capitol that day and Gerou [Rep. Cheri Gerou, a Republican legislator] filed an ethics complaint against him, alleging that his mention of sending mailers to her constituents violated an ethics rule — Rule 36 — against attempting to intimidate or influence legislators.”
On a humorous note, Dog the Bounty Hunter lobbied the Oklahoma legislature for tougher bail enforcement. “The state Senate took the occasion to pass a resolution honoring the 27-year bounty hunter and former bail bondsman. Presumably, lawmakers were scared not to do so”
POLITICO AND THE HILL have recently reported on the Small Brewer Reinvestment and Expanding Workforce Act (Small BREW), and how it is becoming the focal point of an advocacy battle between big-name beers and their smaller counterparts. POLITICO notes that “the Craft Brewers Association sent 243 of its members to Capitol Hill this week to lobby [for the bill…]” which, according to OpenSecrets, the association’s leader (Bob Pease) is calling “the biggest-ever lobby day — setting up meetings for 250 brewery owners with 90 Senate and 250 House offices.”
The aim of Small BREW, which has just recently been revived after its introduction in 2011, is to “amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide for a reduced rate of excise tax on beer produced domestically by certain small producers.” “If enacted,” according to the Hill:
…the Small BREW Act would cut the federal excise tax on beer from $7 a barrel to $3.50, which is placed on a small brewer’s first 60,000 barrels produced per year. After that initial 60,000 barrels, small brewers must pay $18 per barrel, which would be lowered to $16 under the bill.
The Beer Institute, whose members include corporate mammoths like Heineken USA, MillerCoors, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and Anheuser-Busch, is opposed to the bill on the grounds that it divides the industry. It instead supports an alternative measure – the Brewer’s Employment and Excise Relief (BEER) Act – which would lower excise taxes on all brewers, not just the small ones. But whereas The Beer Institute will “actively oppose” Small BREW, the Brewers Association supports both bills. It just prefers its own.
LET THE LOBBYING commence in D.C., where administrators are proposing parking regulations that are distressing food truck vendors. According to the Washington Post:
The regulations, which require D.C. Council approval to become law, offer a two-tiered system in which food trucks would still be allowed to sell from any legal parking space , as long as they follow the posted time limits. But truck operators would also be able to apply for a permit for a specially designated spot that would allow them to vend from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The city has also proposed “mobile roadway vending” zones in the more crowded areas. “The zones were offered as a way to alleviate congestion and prevent fights among vendors for prime parking spots.” The best bite-size primer is offered by the Young & Hungry blog at Washington City Paper:
As a refresher: The proposed regulations call for 23 mobile vending zones throughout the city where limited numbers of food trucks would be allowed to sell food. Each zone would have a minimum of three parking spots; the cap is still unknown. A monthly lottery system would determine who got the spots for each weekday, and those who don’t win zoned locations would have to park at least 500 feet away from the zones. In the central business district, mobile vendors would also be limited to metered parking spots with less than 10 feet of unobstructed sidewalk.
So how will all of this affect mobile vendors? It will render them immobile, and thereby obsolete. At least that’s what Doug Povich, Chairman of the Food Truck Association, avers. “You’ve effectively taken away our ability to roam and meet demand,” said Povich “You’ve effectively turned us into stationary roadway vendors.” The D.C. Food Truck Association’s homepage blares, “Proposed Food Truck Regulations Would Make Food Trucks Illegal in Most of Downtown.”
The blame is flatly laid upon the District’s restaurant association, which the vendors believe wants to “flatten the tires of these “mobile interlopers” [who are] stealing their customers and cluttering their sidewalks.” (The Washington Examiner calls the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington the food truck vendor’s “natural foe.”)
Since the D.C. Council cannot amend the proposed rules, those who fear for their business have no option but to lobby for a ‘No’ vote. A map of would-be affected zones can be found here.
THIS MORNING, POLITICO’S Anna Palmer and Elizabeth Titus published an article entitled “Why Republicans still run K Street.” In about 1,400 words, they offer eleven possibilities:
K St. bet red in 2012 – “Some companies bet that Republicans would take back the Senate and the White House in 2012, beginning the process of scooping up talent months ahead of the election.”
K St. is plain bias – “’There seems to be a philosophical and political bias against Democrats,’ McCormick Group’s Ivan Adler said.”
K St. bet red in 2012 AND K St. is plain bias – “The bias toward hiring Republicans was on display over the past two years when corporations and trade groups continued to bet on Romney and Republican chances of taking back the Senate when making hiring decisions and in choosing to retain their top GOP talent.”
There’s a shortage of Dems – “There are also fewer Democrats coming off the Hill or out of the White House who want to pursue corporate lobbying.”
Republicans = business (1 of 2) – “The business world tends to hire more Republicans, anyway, since their beliefs align more closely with those of corporate clients, and potential Republican hires tend to have more corporate experience or a proven record leading an association or in-house team.”
Republicans = business (2 of 2) -“Former Rep. Billy Tauzin told POLITICO that Republicans may dominate downtown ‘because most associations are business groups, which have, generally speaking, a closer association with the Republican Party.’”
Tom DeLay – “[AKA the] K Street Project, in which then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) helped lead an effort to install Republicans in many of the top trade associations.”
K St. hires Dems, just not for No. 1 roles – “Many Democrats are hired instead to be the No. 2 lobbyist in the shop, giving associations and companies plenty of political cover on Capitol Hill.”
K St. is dominated by Republican issues – “There are also many industries — such as oil, financial services and health care — that a significant number of Democrats are unwilling to represent.”
Administration officials are loath to lobby – “Democrats leaving the Obama White House have also been more reluctant than previous administrations of either party to join the influence-peddling ranks.”
Powerful friends happen to be Republican – “Veteran Republican Frank Fahrenkopf said personal relationships and the scope of each group’s work matter more than partisan affiliation.”
FORMER FIFTEEN-TERM Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who lost his 2012 primary bid to fellow Democrat Brad Sherman, is joining Covington & Burling LLP as a lobbyist. The news comes a mere week after the firm picked up former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), which compels one to ask, “who’s next??”
“Often dubbed half of the “Waxman-Berman machine” that dominated California politics for decades, Berman and longtime ally Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) are credited with bringing “Hollywood issues” like digital piracy to Washington.” – The Washington Post
“Although Kyl and Berman served in different parties and chambers, both said they have established a good working relationship over the years….Berman and Kyl were hired months after the firm brought on Dan Bryant, former senior vice president of global public policy and government affairs at PepsiCo, to lead its public policy practice in Washington and Brussels.” – POLITICO
DESPITE PROFUSE PLEAS from friends and family, your humble blogger hasn’t seen House of Cards. According to Roll Call, that amounts to repeated missed opportunities to catch a glimpse of Cassidy & Associates’ G St. facade. According to The Economist, it means passing up scenes of politicians:
…lying, leaking secrets to lobbyists, framing rivals, indulging in fistfights (one in front of wide-eyed children) and snorting cocaine, as well as sleeping with prostitutes, their own staff and a story-hungry reporter.
While the Cassidy building’s existence is undisputed, it’s dubious whether any lawmakers are snorting coke. So what’s the veracity of the show?
It’s pretty accurate…
“Honestly, the egos and the quest and thirst for power is very prevalent in Washington…just the drive, you know, the drive to the next position or the drive for the position of power” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.)
“The accuracy of the props—from congressional doorplates to visitors’ badges—is much discussed, and praised.” – The Economist
“…after the first couple of shows, [Underwood’s] office starts looking like my office. I have this big map, right, sitting in there. I look over on the wall, he’s got that whip sitting up there….Then in the ninth episode, he’s trying to pass this bill, and he says, ‘I’m going to tell you one thing: You vote your district, you vote your conscience. Just don’t surprise me.’ [I said that.]” Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
“In real life, says a Democratic campaign aide, members of Congress are too nannied by staff to stride about hatching plots, one-on-one. In the real Washington, says a Republican staffer, leadership coups take longer to ferment….Other errors fall under the heading of flattery: the clothes are too elegant for DC, and the ratio of sexual trysts to committee meetings is strikingly high.” – The Economist
“The notion of any of our leadership team having sex with a reporter makes me laugh out loud. And besides, everyone knows there is no decent barbecue in Washington.” – Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)
“[The characters] do mix fundraising and legislation far more than people would do…offering x dollars to anyone who would support this bill. That would never occur in real life.” – Thoma
“If I were to make one criticism of the show, it’s [that] a South Carolina congressman’s barbecue of choice appears to be fairly sticky ribs, when true South Carolina barbecue uses a mustard-based sauce and even when it’s not that, it’s a more North Carolina vinegar mop.” – Mike Bober, Meat Week founder and Capital Spice blogger
FIRST IT WAS mid-sized banks (see previous post), now it’s credit unions. The latter have been lobbying against Dodd Frank reforms, arguing that they’re too harsh. “Credit unions are well-managed, well-run institutions that did not engage in the practices that led to the financial crisis,” said Fred Becker, [The National Association of Federal Credit Unions (NAFCU)] president and CEO. “Yet, the regulatory burden on our nation’s credit unions has reached epic proportions and that must be addressed immediately.” – The Hill
Associations are increasingly using Relationships, Advocability, and Political capital (RAP) indices to gain leverage on the Hill: “Here’s how it works: a trade association or advocacy group sends the RAP Index survey to their members by email. The software confirms their address, and finds a list of their local, state or federal elected officials. The survey asks members in-depth questions about any relationships with those officials and whether they’d be willing to be media surrogates.” – POLITICO
Nike is lobbying on behalf of the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty (TPP), which was designed in part to remove tariffs between the U.S. and other countries along the Pacific Rim. The $67 billion shoe company would benefit from the elimination of duties on shoes made abroad: “But others are fighting to keep the tariffs in place. New Balance, the Boston-based athletic shoe maker, wants to maintain tariffs on shoes from Vietnam in order to protect the jobs of 1,350 New Balance workers who make footwear in the United States. A quarter of the shoes the company sells in North America are made in its U.S. manufacturing facilities.” – The Washington Post
The Keystone pipeline is still very much an issue, with thousands upon thousands gathering on the Mall Sunday to rally against its construction: “The rally, which was organized by the Sierra Club, 350.org and the Hip Hop Caucus, was billed as the largest climate rally in American history. Organizers estimated that about 35,000 people participated in the rally. The U.S. Park Police does not give crowd estimates.” – POLITICO
Some lobbyists continue to deploy opposition (“oppo”) researchers to disarm and discredit their foes: “Oppo researchers — who often have backgrounds in politics, government and law enforcement that may include the FBI or even the intelligence community — will also scan court documents, public records, campaign finance and lobbying disclosures and reach out to their contacts on Capitol Hill, K Street and in local communities.” – Roll Call
Are lobbyists unethical? Email 100 words or less to firstname.lastname@example.org. The best response will be posted.
FOR MOST AMERICANS, the answer to the above question is too securely in the affirmative to merit a response. It can best be classified as a rhetorical substitute for “yes,” much like “is the sky blue?” E.g.: “Is Washington broken?” “Um, are lobbyists unethical?”
It may be the case that many lobbyists are unethical, but to no greater extent than many school teachers or doctors are. These last are part of noble professions that contain some ignoble people. If lobbyists were incorrigibly unethical, there would have to be something incorrigibly unethical about lobbying.
But if the object of the question is the business of lobbying, and not the lobbyists themselves (if it is best read “is lobbying unethical?”), then all logic errs on the side of the negative. The activity of lobbying is ethically neutral: it can go in the direction of big tobacco or bone cancer research. Assessed through the lens of the Constitution, lobbying attains a positive ethical charge. The common thread that unites all lobbyists is their exercise of the freedom of speech and to petition, both couched in the First Amendment.
The assumption (dare I say conviction) that lobbyists are unethical is also fueled by a very unhistorical sentiment: nostalgia (or as the late sociologist Robert Nisbet called it, “the rust of memory.”) In the words of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig:
The ordinary lobbyist today is a Boy Scout compared with the criminal of the nineteenth century. The lobbyist today is ethical, and well educated. He or she works extremely hard to live within the letter of the law. More than ever before, most lobbyists are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a field and able to advise and guide Congress well. Regulation is complex; regulators understand very little; the lobbyist is the essential link between what the regulator wants to do and how it can get done…. Most of it is decent, aboveboard, the sort of stuff we would hope happens inside the Beltway. (Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It)
To Lessig, lobbyists are not only not unethical, they’re admirable. Paradoxically, they’re the model of what most people think they corrupt.