Businesses, interest groups and labor unions are spending $100 million a month to lobby the federal government, according to the first complete computerized study of disclosure reports.
The players range from giant Philip Morris, which wants to limit its legal liability on cigarettes, to tiny Kane County, Utah (population 5,169), which wants a voice in federal planning for a nearby national monument.
“What used to be the exclusive domain of a small group of people has largely become a free-for-all,” said Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist who specializes in securing federal project money for local governments. “What we have seen over the past few years is a steady increase.”
Spending for the first half of last year - the most recent for which figures are available - totaled $633 million, according to a computerized Associated Press analysis of lobbying disclosure reports. The database, a joint project with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, provides the first comprehensive look at lobbying spending since federal disclosures began two years ago.
The total is higher than the $400 million in lobbying spending the AP estimated last year for the first six months of 1996 based on a limited statistical look at the first batch of disclosure forms. And it suggests that Washington’s influence game is at least a $1.2 billion-a-year business.
The number includes money spent to pay the salaries and expenses of lobbyists, the costs of running their offices, spending on research used as lobbying ammunition, the costs of privately paid travel for policymakers and their staffs and the limited meals and other favors permitted under new, restrictive gift rules.
The highest-paid lobbyists - such as Jason Berman, head of the Recording Industry Association of America - can make $1 million a year.
The overall total is conservative since the lobbying reports on which it is based capture only the most notable direct lobbying of Congress and the executive branch. It leaves out much limited or part-time lobbying activity; the selling of “strategic advice” and public relations help; the lobbying of 600 professionals or firms on behalf of foreign interests and the entire field of “grass-roots” lobbying, which has been estimated to generate $400 million or more a year.
It also leaves out special-interest political contributions, which totaled $67 million during the period. Such gifts ease the way for lobbyists.
Topping the list of high-spending interest groups was the American Medical Association, which dispensed $8.5 million for lobbying from January to June. The doctors’ lobby is a perennially active player in Washington, and its concerns - from the regulation of managed health care to changes in malpractice insurance - have been on Congress’ front burner of late.
More than two dozen staff lobbyists at AMA worked Congress and federal agencies during the period, pushing the organization’s plan to change Medicare reimbursement rules, urging caution on reform of the Food and Drug Administration and watching the progress of bills dealing with late-term abortion, assisted suicide and access to emergency medical care.
“We have a broad range of issues that the Washington office focuses upon,” said AMA spokesman James Stacey. “That explains the number of lobbyists we have and the amount of expense we report.”
Rounding out the top five lobbying groups were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, at $7 million; Philip Morris, $5.9 million; General Motors, $5.2 million, and the Edison Electric Institute, $5 million. The rest of the top-50 list is dotted with prominent oil companies, pharmaceutical makers, trade associations and telecommunications firms.
The analysis showed that the most heavily lobbied issue areas were the federal budget and spending bills, taxes, health care, trade and the environment.
For Sen. Carl Levin, the author of the lobbying disclosure law, the flood of information is welcome. “It’s important to shine daylight on these activities. You want the public to know, so that hopefully the activities will be responsible and proper, and so folks on the other sides of issues … have an opportunity to know what the other guy is doing - so that it’s a little fairer to all sides.”
There’s no slowing in sight. Ron Shaiko, who grooms future influence brokers in a lobbying course at American University, said, “The Chamber of Commerce just hired five new lobbyists, so clearly they think they’ve got more work to do.”
It was tobacco money that fueled the explosive growth last year of one well-placed Washington law firm, Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand. Among its big names are former Senate leaders George Mitchell and Bob Dole, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen.
The five leading tobacco companies paid $940,000 each to the firm in the first half of 1997 to push for adoption of a settlement that would offer liability limits for the cigarette makers. The new business pushed the firm’s lobbying revenue for the period to $9.1 million - more than the $6.8 million it collected in all of 1996.
Other top lobbying firms included Cassidy & Associates, with $8.2 million in revenue for the period; Patton Boggs, $5 million, and Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, $4.6 million.
At the other end of the spectrum, officials of Kane County hired a Washington lobbyist in late 1996 after President Clinton designated a chunk of the county’s territory as a National Monument, ending plans for a new mine that would have generated local tax revenue. Lobbyist James Magner was paid $15,000 in the first half of 1997 to help the county get federal planning money to offset the loss. “I’m flexible with them,” Magner said. “They can’t always pay every month.”
Not all lobbying reports reflect high-profile interests, or well-known public issues.
The American Association of Nude Recreation hired a lobbyist after Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., sought to ban nude swimming and sunbathing at a remote beach along Canaveral National Seashore.
“We never envisioned that people on Capitol Hill would be interested in us one way or another,” said Turner Stokes, a leader of the group. “We don’t have any particular standing on Capitol Hill, but we had to at least give it our best shot.”
The nudists paid lobbying firm Jamison and Sullivan to head off the ban, but lost.
And then there’s Stephen Bassett, who signed up as the lobbyist for four organizations that want the government to confess what it knows about visits by alien spacecraft and the existence of life on other planets. In one respect, he shares something in common with tobacco lobbyists - few lawmakers want to be associated with him.
Bassett laments, “They always say they will meet with us, but only if we don’t disclose it publicly.”
xxxx BIG SPENDERS The top lobbying spenders for the first half of 1997: AMA, $8,560,000 Chamber of Commerce, $7,000,000 Philip Morris, $5,900,000 General Motors, $5,200,000 Edison Electric, $5,000,000 Pfizer, $4,600,000 United Technologies, $4,160,000 General Electric, $4,120,000 AT&T;, $4,120,000 Citicorp, $4,100,000 Christian Coalition, $4,040,000 National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, $4,020,000 Bell Atlantic, $3,960,000 AARP, $3,680,000