Special interest groups and lobbyists in Washington spent a whopping 13 billion dollars to influence decisions made by the White House, Congress and other U.S. federal agencies over the past eight years, a watchdog group said Thursday.
The Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity said in a report that the money spent by lobbyists to entertain lawmakers at posh restaurants and throw fancy parties, among other tactics, had exceeded total financing for political campaigning.
”Our report reveals that each year since 1998 the amount spent to influence federal lawmakers is double the amount of money spent to elect them,” Roberta Baskin, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, told reporters on Thursday.
”Today, federal lobbying is an industry in its own right,” she said.
Lobbying firms that work for entities fighting for a slice of the 2.5-trillion-dollar annual federal budget also hired 2,000 former officials — including 250 former members of Congress and agency heads — to pressure the government on issues ranging from abortion, taxation, and highway construction to foreign policy and trade.
U.S. federal election law prohibits corporations, labour unions, non-profits and other organisations from openly funding individual political candidates, but these same groups can and do hire lobbyists, mostly with offices on Washington’s famous K Street.
The Centre says Washington lobbyists reported billing fees of 2.4 billion dollars in 2003, the most recent year with available data. That figure will almost certainly rise to more than three billion dollars in 2004, the report says.
In the 2002 election cycle, the most recent for which complete data exists, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) reported that 1.6 billion dollars were raised by political parties, primarily the Republicans and Democrats.
In that same time period, ”influence peddlers” earned four billion dollars to press their various causes before the government.
In 2000, the last presidential election for which complete data exist, those numbers were 2.3 billion dollars for elections compared to 3.5 billion dollars for lobbying.
”The lesson may be that influence has become a big investment, and the only reason companies would invest is if there was evidence of a return on this investment,” said Alex Knott, the author of the report.
The report finds that in the past six and a half years, 300 universities spent nearly 132 million dollars, while 1,400 local governments spent more than 357 million dollars to win funding for everything from freeways to fire trucks.
The report gave the example of Altria Group Inc., the parent company of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris USA, which devoted 125 million dollars since 1998 to its lobbying operations.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a non-profit business pressure group, spent 193 million dollars on lobbyists — more than any other single entity.
Even the Prison Fellowship Ministries, a religious organisation founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson — who pled guilty to obstruction of justice in the Richard Nixon-era Watergate scandal — has spent 1.5 million dollars on lobbying federal officials.
About 77 governments also lobbied the U.S. government, spending a total of 619 million dollars, with Britain, Germany and Switzerland in the lead and Israel alone outpacing all six Arab states on the list.
The Centre for Public Integrity blames lax oversight laws for the mushrooming of lobbying in the United States and the opaque nature of its operations.
”Oddly enough, it seems that we know more about baseball player salaries than we do about the millions earned by lobbyists,” said Baskin. ”In part, that’s because of the gaps in disclosure.”
The Senate Office of Public Records, for example, has a staff of only 11 people, while its counterpart in the House of Representatives employs fewer than 35.
By contrast, the FEC has 391 employees and an annual budget of 52 million dollars.
”That may explain why one in five of the companies lobbying the federal government have failed to file one or more disclosure forms required by law,” said the report.
”Because of their ability to influence lawmakers and legislation, lobbyists have been dubbed ‘the Fourth Branch’ of government. But while they wield enormous influence in the capital, lobbyists receive little attention from the press and far less public scrutiny.”
Two Senate committees are currently looking into the work of lobbyists with ties to the House majority leader Tom DeLay, a Republican from Texas.
Former Delay employees have consulted for more than 200 companies, organisations and trade groups since he became House Republican leader in January 2003.
The Centre noted that there have been numerous failed attempts to reform the lobbying laws, largely because of opposition from the lobbying firms themselves.
These include a bill that would have increased the time that former federal workers have to wait before lobbying their old bosses, and a provision that would make it illegal to send ”fraudulent” lobbying communications to Congress.
Even when the U.S. Congress took the unusual step of trying to regulate those who leave government service for the private sector, the effort was ”narrowly focused” and marred by double standards.
The Centre gave the example of former senator Robert Dole, who called for Congress to tighten the rules and urged a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments by the nation’s top trade officials.
But after accepting his defeat in the 1996 presidential election won by Bill Clinton, Dole withdrew from politics and went to work for Washington lobby firms.
The Centre says that the former Senate majority leader is now a registered lobbyist who has represented the government of Indonesia.
”We really wanted people to understand how high-priced special interests are affecting their democracy,” Knott told IPS. IPS