Where Have All the Lobbyists Gone?
It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and I found myself hanging around the House-side entrance to the Capitol building, hoping to interview lawmakers during the protracted government shutdown in October. The members had been called by the Republican leadership to open just one portion of the government without authorizing funds for the Affordable Care Act, a partial solution that had rallied Democrats in opposition. As dusk settled in, I lingered to interview the representatives as they walked in and out of what everyone considered at this point to be a scene of political theater.
While I waited, a small crowd gathered, composed of men and women in business attire, creating something of a receiving line where they could exchange pleasantries with members of Congress as the latter made their way from their offices across Independence Avenue to cast a perfunctory vote. The city, with hundreds of thousands of federal workers sent home from the job, was far from dead. On Capitol Hill, the real financial engine of Washington, the selling of access and policy hummed along at full speed, and I was in the midst of it.
Many of the people assembled around me, I noticed, were former lawmakers and their associates. Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle was there, along with officials from his firm DLA Piper, to escort a group of international attorneys into a meeting with lawmakers. Men who said they were with Alston & Bird, another law firm heavily involved in lobbying, convened a few feet away. A cluster of businessmen with the credit-rating firm Experian prepped their own series of meetings with congressional staff.
Behind me, I heard the distinctive croak of Zach Wamp, a former congressman who was busy talking up his new job to current members of Congress. He boasted that he is now working for Palantir, the controversial intelligence contractor. “I’m kind of overseeing their operations up here,” Wamp said when I asked what he does for Palantir. He ended the conversation abruptly when questioned about the scandals associated with the firm, which include allegations of spying on activists and other privacy violations.
I returned to a computer later that day and pulled up the lobbyist-registration database to run the few names I had managed to write down. In theory, lobbyists are required to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) to give the public some idea about who is attempting to influence the laws and regulations that govern us. To my surprise, however, Wamp and most of the others were nowhere to be found. (Palantir’s corporate counsel, Matt Long, would not comment on what Wamp does for the company.)
Daschle, a “policy adviser” to a range of corporate interests and a close confidant of many top Democrats, has become one of the most famous unregistered lobbyists in the city. In fact, his activities as a consigliere and go-between for business leaders and politicians, including President Obama, are so well known that among ethics watchdogs, the technicality in the law that allows lobbyists to evade registration has become known as the “Daschle Loophole.”
Officially, Shrinking—Unofficially, Exploding
On paper, the lobbying industry is quickly disappearing. In January, records indicated that for the third straight year, overall spending on lobbying decreased. Lobbyists themselves continue to deregister in droves. In 2013, the number of registered lobbyists dipped to 12,281, the lowest number on file since 2002.
But experts say that lobbying isn’t dying; instead, it’s simply going underground. The problem, says American University professor James Thurber, who has studied congressional lobbying for more than thirty years, is that “most of what is going on in Washington is not covered” by the lobbyist-registration system. Thurber, who is currently advising the American Bar Association’s lobbying-reform task force, adds that his research suggests the true number of working lobbyists is closer to 100,000.
A loophole-ridden law, poor enforcement, the development of increasingly sophisticated strategies that enlist third-party validators and create faux-grassroots campaigns, along with an Obama administration executive order that gave many in the profession a disincentive to register—all of these forces have combined to produce a near-total collapse of the system that was designed to keep tabs on federal lobbying.
While the official figure puts the annual spending on lobbying at $3.2 billion in 2013, Thurber estimates that the industry brings in more than $9 billion a year. Other experts have made similar estimates, but no one is sure how large the industry has become. Lee Drutman, a lobbying expert at the Sunlight Foundation, says that at least twice as much is spent on lobbying as is officially reported.