Where Have All the Lobbyists Gone?
“Money-Maddened Men Behind the Mask”
Step into the House clerk’s room in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building, and you’ll find an area with a television tuned to CNN, one or two staffers idling by their computers, and another feeding documents into a printer-scanner. On the other side of Capitol Hill is the office of the secretary of the Senate, a similarly small room filled with mostly idle staffers.
When Congress created the current lobbyist-registration system, they “handed over the responsibility for administering the law to these two offices,” says Timothy LaPira, an assistant professor at James Madison University who has written several papers on the failings of the current law.
The offices are largely clerical in nature. After lobbyists submit their registration or deregistration forms and quarterly statements, staffers are charged with making sure these filings show up in the database. “They have zero authority to actually investigate the person who fails to register to lobby,” LaPira says. “They only look into cases where disclosures have already arrived in their offices and they suspect error.”
Enforcement authority ultimately lies with the United States Attorney’s Office for Washington, DC. In an interview, Keith Morgan, the deputy chief of that office, acknowledged that the Justice Department has largely pursued cases in which a registered lobbyist has failed to update a quarterly statement or fallen delinquent, and the House clerk or Senate secretary has spotted the error. Though there have been investigations, Morgan’s office has never prosecuted anyone for failing to register or for deregistering while continuing to lobby. “We have no ability to know if somebody doesn’t register unless some insider or a competitor comes and says, ‘We have reason to believe that this individual or this group is lobbying,’” Morgan says. To the best of his knowledge, even though Congress added criminal penalties for failing to disclose lobbying activities, there has not been one single case of criminal charges being filed under the law.
Morgan’s office has limited capacity for pursuing violations of the LDA. There are four attorneys at the Justice Department charged with overseeing compliance with federal lobbying law, but their workload also includes healthcare and housing fraud, false claims and other kinds of cases. The only full-time employee for lobbying law is a paralegal who helps with the data entry on disclosures. “Quite frankly, there may be some instances where people who are lobbying should register,” Morgan says, adding that there have been “shifts in the lobbying industry to try to evade” registration.
LaPira confirms the situation: “The Department of Justice does not have the time, or resources, or political will, to really pursue any of these cases.” As a result, the American people are increasingly left in the dark about who’s calling the shots in their government.
Finding a suitable way to enforce lobbying law has been a problem for decades, going back to the first registration system. While lobbying under false pretenses—using a front group or paying a professional to peddle influence on your behalf—was routinely banned by state law for much of the nineteenth century, this started to change in 1890, when Massachusetts (followed by other states) professionalized the role of lobbyists by instituting registration systems and other guidelines. Regulation on the federal level didn’t arrive until after a wave of congressional inquiries in the early twentieth century.
The first lobbyist-registration system was drafted by Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, a pugnacious New Deal Democrat who later became a Supreme Court justice. Black’s probes as head of the Special Committee to Investigate Lobbying Activities, which existed from 1935 through 1938, revealed a wide array of shady practices, from paying off newspaper editors for positive publicity to the creation of fake citizens’ organizations to generate phony grassroots petitions to Congress.
The most famous lobbying investigation of the New Deal was sparked by an incident involving Representative Denis Driscoll of Pennsylvania. Driscoll received 816 telegrams from a small town in his district, all opposed to legislation that would break up the utility trust companies. At the time, the utility market was highly concentrated in the hands of just a few wealthy businessmen. Thirteen holding companies accounted for 75 percent of the privately owned electric utility industry by 1932, a government report found, and the owners were hiking rates without fear of competition. President Franklin Roosevelt and his team favored a bill that would regulate and kill off the big holding companies. Then–House Speaker Sam Rayburn, reflecting on the ensuing legislative battle, called the trust companies “the most powerful lobby ever organized against any bill which ever came up in Congress.”
Driscoll attempted to track down some of the constituents responsible for the telegrams, to no avail; they didn’t seem to exist. Then Black took charge of the matter and began issuing blanket subpoenas to lobbyists, utility executives and even Western Union, the company that delivered the telegrams. The results were astounding. The utility companies had paid for over 250,000 telegrams to lawmakers, using names often taken at random from the local directories. The American Liberty League and other pressure groups like the Farmers’ Independence Council—all self-styled grassroots organizations that had come into existence in those years to oppose New Deal reforms—were found to be largely financed by a small group of wealthy families, including the du Ponts (who provided a third of the money) and members of the Morgan, Mellon and Rockefeller clans.