Washington's lobbying industry has mushroomed over the past decade but the government has fallen behind in keeping track of the billions of dollars a year that lobbyists spend, according to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
Lobbying expenditures in Washington have at least doubled in the past six years, the center reported. Last year, corporations, labor unions and interest groups spent more than $3 billion trying to influence the federal government, up from $1.6 billion in 1998.
Top Spenders: From 1998 to mid-2004, lobbyists spent $13 billion trying to influence members of Congress and federal officials.
At the same time, the center said, enforcement of lobbying regulations has been lax. The center estimated that at least 14,000 disclosure documents required under a 10-year-old lobbying law were not filed over the period, including documents that should have come from 49 of the nation's 50 largest lobbying firms.
"Neither the House nor Senate offices responsible for keeping records on K Street's activities have audit or investigative powers," said Roberta Baskin, the center's executive director. "It is impossible, for example, to determine how many lobbyists there actually are in Washington."
The center's report gives only a partial picture of the size and scope of contemporary lobbying. It tallied the spending of registered lobbyists who directly contacted lawmakers and administration officials. That calculation, while accurate as far as it goes, leaves out the faster-growing and probably larger forms of indirect lobbying such as stirring up local contacts from the "grass roots" and buying newspaper, radio and TV ads.
Nevertheless, the report begins to quantify what lawmakers and lobbyists have long suspected: Lobbying is growing very rapidly and largely in the shadows.
The market for lobbyists is so robust that former members of Congress now routinely become lobbyists when they retire or are defeated -- a career change that was rare as recently as 20 years ago. The center estimated that about 250 former members of Congress and heads of federal agencies are registered to lobby, as are more than 2,000 other former senior government officials.
Total spending by registered lobbyists from 1998 through mid-2004 was $13 billion. The more than $5.4 billion in projected spending on lobbying in 2003 and 2004 was about twice the amount spent by candidates for federal office -- the people who are lobbied most often -- according to the center.
The center extrapolated 2004 lobbying expenditures based on mid-year filings, which are the latest that are fully available.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent more on lobbying than any other group over the six-year period, $193 million, the center said. Altria Group Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., General Electric Co. and Edison Electric Institute each laid out more than $100 million over the same period.
State and local governments and universities were also big spenders on lobbying. From 1998 to mid-2004 those groups spent almost $600 million, the center said. Every state and six U.S. territories hired lobbyists, as did 300 universities.
The nation's top lobbying firms included three law firms, Patton Boggs LLP, Piper Rudnick (now DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary) and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Interpublic Group of Companies Inc. and WPP Group PLC, which own several lobbying firms, were No. 1 and No. 2 in the list of lobbying firms, the center said.
The economics of influence peddling suggest that lobbying will probably continue to expand rapidly because it often pays off. Since 1998, for example, Lockheed Martin Corp. spent roughly $89 million on lobbying and received $94 billion in government contracts.
"That's more than a thousand percent return on its investment," Baskin said, a higher profit than can be found in almost any other realm.
The center attributed the increase in lobbying to legislative gridlock, which has forced interests to push harder to get what they want, to frequent turnover among congressional leaders, which has necessitated extra attentiveness by lobbying groups, and to the growing evidence that "money talks" in legislation and regulation.
At the same time, the center bemoaned the state of lobbying disclosure. Over the six-year period, nearly 300 individuals, companies and associations lobbied without first registering as is required by law, the report said. More than 2,000 registrations were filed late. Of the 250 top lobbying firms, 210 failed to file one or more necessary documents. At least one in five companies that lobby failed to file required forms.
Baskin blamed part of that problem on the government's lack of staff to oversee disclosure rules. The Senate Office of Public Records employs 11 people and the House equivalent employs fewer than 35 people, the center reported. By contrast, the Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, has 391 employees.