For the second year running, total spending on federal lobbying has declined.As Roll Call reports, however, these data do not necessarily mean a decline in interest group activity.
It's only the third time in the last 15 years that overall spending on lobbying has declined. In fact, overall spending is at its lowest point since 2007.
Not all is gloomy on K Street: Overall spending on lobbying still topped $3.27 billion and more than 12,374 lobbyists hit the Hill this past year, making it the fifth highest-spending year overall.
But the numbers nevertheless represent a decline to a level of spending not seen since the days before the healthcare debate, which drove outlays for Washington representation to unprecedented levels. At the spending peak in 2010, during the height of the battle over President Obama's healthcare overhaul, more than $3.55 billion was laid out. The $3.28 billion spent this year is lower than the $3.30 billion spent in 2008 -- before health care became an issue -- but is significantly higher than 2007's level, when clients paid $2.8 billion for lobbying in the nation's capital.
The Center for Responsive Politics based its analysis on data filed in lobbying disclosure reports, which must be filed with the House and Senate every quarter. The reports detail, in general terms, what issues were lobbied, which lobbyists and firms were hired and how much they were paid for the work.
The tepid recovery and a dysfunctional Congress do bear blame, but a third, much overlooked factor exists: A lot of the work influencing government takes place in the shadows, outside of the view of public disclosures such as the LDA. And with a president who has further stigmatized registered lobbyists, K Streeters and some of their clients have made a practice of keeping their work just under the limits of the lobby laws.
In some cases, lobbyists have remained on the job, even with the same firms, but have deregistered, keeping their clients and their work secret. One prominent example is Steve Ricchetti, who stayed with his Ricchetti Inc., although no longer as a registered lobbyist, before joining the Obama administration last year. Lobbyists, of course, can’t work for the executive branch — President Barack Obama banned them — unless granted a waiver.
“I have looked at this very carefully over the years and thought about it a lot,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “I have come to the conclusion that the deregistrations that are going on, because people find out that they don’t really need to register or they’re trying to do a little bit of shadow advocacy . . . is the most important factor.”
More than the economy, more than the partisan gridlock on the Hill, Thurber asserted, it’s the lack of enforcement of lobbying laws and the resulting move to keep more lobbying work out of public view that is depressing the LDA tallies. K Street players don’t trigger the lobby law until they make more than one contact with government officials and spend at least 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities for compensation.