Where Have All the Lobbyists Gone?
Edelman, a public relations firm that helps businesses develop grassroots support for their legislative and regulatory policies in Washington, has also racked up lucrative contracts. According to documents obtained by The Nation, the firm was retained by the grocery industry ($741,625), the oil refinery industry ($638,494), a group of mining companies ($1,371,044), the electric utility industry ($683,183), the National Association of Manufacturers ($1,080,87), and the American Petroleum Institute ($51,917,692). On behalf of the API, an oil and gas industry lobby, Edelman managed multiple websites and online advertising efforts urging officials to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, support tax deductions for the oil industry, and expand access for drilling on public lands.
Despite this seemingly obvious lobbying activity, Edelman has not been registered as a lobbying firm since 2006. The so-called “grassroots advocacy” that the firm specializes in falls outside the statutory definition in the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Even those who claim to engage only in public relations do participate, in some cases, in direct meetings. One such example is Anita Dunn, the former White House communications director and current informal adviser to the Obama administration. After leaving the administration in 2009, she joined SKDKnickerbocker, a “political consulting” firm, taking on corporate accounts to influence Obama initiatives. SKDKnickerbocker worked to curb Michelle Obama’s obesity initiative on behalf of a group of food marketing companies; to weaken Education Department regulations on behalf of a for-profit college; and the firm is currently working on behalf of TransCanada to get the Keystone XL pipeline approved.
“I work with some corporations, because the fact of the matter is, we’re in a democracy, and there’s a dialogue, and people have a right to be heard,” Dunn says in defense of these efforts. SKDKnickerbocker has never registered as a lobbying firm. The New York Times reported that despite its claims to engage only in public relations, SKDKnickerbocker has contacted Obama administration officials on behalf of its clients.
The Obama administration’s greatest defeat, many argue, was the president’s failure to pass a comprehensive law addressing climate change during his first two years in office, when the Democrats had control of both houses of Congress. Coal and coal-powered utility companies, fearing a loss in profits resulting from the bill, financed a group called the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE, pronounced “Ace”) to influence the debate.
After a critical vote in the House of Representatives in 2009, in which the climate bill just barely passed, a Democratic lawmaker from Virginia discovered that many of the letters he had received from supposed constituents asking him to oppose the bill had been forged. The letters appeared to come from local chapters of the American Association of University Women, the NAACP and other organizations—but in fact they were written by Bonner & Associates, a political consulting firm and subcontractor for ACCCE. At least two other Democratic lawmakers, Kathy Dahlkemper and Chris Carney, both from Pennsylvania, received forged letters as well.
ACCCE did disclose $2.2 million in lobbying spending as the House took up President Obama’s climate bill in 2009. Tax forms filed with the IRS, however, show that the group in fact spent $28,353,630 in advocacy that year. The work with Bonner & Associates never had to be disclosed as lobbying.
Unlike Hugo Black with his multiyear investigation in the 1930s, which triggered the first federal lobbying reforms, Democratic legislators in recent years have done little to confront the problem. Black issued subpoenas and had his staff travel the country to interview those involved and to explore the depths of the industry’s deception. But in 2009, House Democrats held a single hearing and then largely dismissed the issue, with little consequence to those involved. One ACCCE representative claimed under oath that his group did not oppose the climate bill—a claim easily refutable through a simple Google search. The corporate executives who financed the group were not compelled to testify, and there were no legal penalties for those involved in the fake letter campaign. With industry organizations and their affiliates spreading confusion about the bill and even the science underpinning anthropogenic climate change, the legislation later collapsed and died in the Senate, dooming prospects for reform.
Read Next: Lee Fang on “The Invisible Hand of Business in the 2012 Election.”