The latest list of big lobbying spenders contains a surprising name: George Soros.
Well, not the billionaire himself, but the Open Society Policy Center, the Washington-based advocacy affiliate of his Open Society Foundations.
Soros and his generous support of liberal causes, through his philanthropy and his personal political spending, have long been the subject of conservative ire. But, until now, he hasn’t done much on the formal lobbying front, and the group’s huge increase in reported spending — it hit $11 million in 2013, more than triple the $3.25 million it spent the previous year — has drawn remarkably little notice.
The big jump placed the Soros group 27th in a recent year-end lobbying tally by the Center for Responsive Politics — just below defense giant General Dynamics and ahead of corporate powerhouses Dow Chemical, Chevron and Microsoft.
Such large companies as those tend to rely on healthy in-house government relations teams and legions of outside lobbyists. But the Soros group takes a different approach: Most of its advocacy millions were spent in grants to activist organizations that do their own lobbying.
“A bunch of things that we’ve worked on forever have moved into the legislative phase,” said Stephen Rickard, executive director of the policy center, explaining the big increase. He mentioned several areas, including criminal justice reform, national security issues and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered last year.
But, Rickard said, the majority of last year’s spending increase was due to the group’s support for comprehensive immigration reform, and its largest grantee was the Alliance for Citizenship, a broad-based coalition of labor, immigration, community and faith-based groups and a leading voice in the debate.
The Alliance for Citizenship organized hundreds of events across the country in August, hoping that its town halls, prayer vigils and sit-ins would propel action on immigration. While momentum has stalled, the organization is still at it, marching and meeting with members of Congress and their staffs.
The Open Society Foundations reported last summer that it had spent more than $100 million on immigrant rights in the United States since 1997. But private foundations like Soros’s are prohibited by the tax code from lobbying, and the grants they make generally include similar restrictions. Instead, through its advocacy affiliate — donations to which are not tax deductible — they can lobby and support others.
“There’s only so much you can do [with money from a private foundation] when it comes to a straight-out legislative push,” said one leading immigration activist. But the lobbying grant “frees up advocates considerably to talk straight about what’s happening, what needs to happen and who’s blocking it.”
The Open Society Policy Center isn’t required to provide a complete list of its grant recipients until about a year from now, with its tax filing. But Rickard said its largest 2013 grants outside domestic policy went to Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the U.S. International Council on Disabilities.
The group currently lists one staff member — Lora Lumpe, who works on human rights and foreign military assistance — as an active lobbyist. And it had small contracts last year with two outside shops: the Mitchell Firm, paid $90,000 for work on corrections and sentencing reform, and Orion Strategies, which received $20,000 for work on democracy and human rights issues in Burma, Malaysia and the region.
(It’s worth noting that Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group backed by those other billionaires, Charles and David Koch, last week filed its first lobbying registration forms. But soon after The Hill noticed the paperwork, a spokesman for the group said it intended to de-register, after realizing that a staff member who visits Capitol Hill doesn’t in fact spend 20 percent of his or her time dealing with policymakers, the threshold for registration.)
It’s too soon to know whether 2014 lobbying spending will be up or down, Rickard said, but he doesn’t expect a big increase like last year’s.
The picture may be clearer on the political front. While Soros was slow to start spending on politics in 2012, he has jumped in this time around — with a candidate who hasn’t even announced. Soros agreed in October to be a co-chairman of the national finance council for Ready for Hillary, a super PAC mobilizing support for a possible White House bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton.