By Debra Mayberry
Sunday, January 29, 2006
Give yourself a point for the correct answer to this question: What do Tom Bevill, Lloyd Meeds and Tillie Fowler have in common? (a) They are all former members of Congress (b) They are all registered lobbyists (c) They are all dead.
The answer is all of the above. I offer this little quiz as a way of highlighting a point that has caught my attention over the past several months as the media have focused increasing attention on lobbying and tried to quantify the registered lobbyists who currently work the halls of Congress.
On Jan. 19, CNN reported that there are "more than 37,000 registered lobbyists." The Christian Science Monitor cited "39,402" registered lobbyists on Jan. 20. The Seattle Times has "32,890" in a recent article. USA Today is more conservative, reporting "more than 32,000" lobbyists. In last Wednesday's Senate hearing on lobbying reform, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) referred to "more than 30,000 lobbyists" in his remarks. The Senate Office of Public Records (SOPR), the agency responsible for receiving lobbyist registrations and publishing them online, reports 32,890 registered lobbyists as of Sept. 30, 2005.
As the publisher of the directory Washington Representatives and the Web site http://www.lobbyists.info , I have a responsibility to my customers to present accurate and up-to-date information. But the number of actively registered lobbyists that we publish hovers around just 11,500.
How could our count be so different from the widely reported totals? I had to find out. And that's where my quiz comes in.
I have no idea where some of the media's numbers come from. But I took a closer look at the figure that SOPR presents and compared it with our data. The difference in our numbers comes from the fact that we serve different constituencies and apply different methodologies in how we present the data. The Senate Office of Public Records provides a historical record of registered lobbyists. We provide a current record of active lobbyists. It is no wonder that the data look so different.
Let me make it clear that SOPR does a terrific job. We, and many others, rely on its raw data for our publications. Its staff does an exceptional job of making lobby registrations available to the public, and its figure accurately reflects the number of lobbyists who have registered since 1998.
But errors creep into the system in a variety of ways. Often, individual lobbyists register with SOPR under more than one name. For example, George F. (Trey) Barnes III appears in the SOPR database as G. Furman (Trey) Barnes, G. Furman Barnes III, George F. Barnes, George F. Barnes III and Trey Barnes. Jack Abramoff appears twice -- as Jack Abramoff and Jack A. Abramoff. Should we count them as eight lobbyists, or just two?
Termination reports are another issue. ("Termination" is when a lobbyist files a report stating that he or she is no longer lobbying on behalf of a client.) First of all, we've found that many lobbyists don't file a termination report with SOPR when they change careers, retire or die. Second, SOPR does not delete the names of lobbyists who file termination reports, and for historical purposes, everyone agrees that the old records should be retained. But there needs to be clarity about the number of individuals who are currently registered as lobbyists vs. a historical record about everyone who ever was registered to lobby.
Because our customers want data on lobbyists currently in the workforce, we weed out lobbyists who have terminated relationships with clients. We make calls to confirm information when we see six different versions of the same name. In fact, we update our database every day as we receive information, and we contact both lobbyists and clients to ensure accuracy. Do we make mistakes? You bet we do. Even with our constant checking and follow-up, errors still find their way into our data. But based on our extensive research, we believe that the number of active lobbyists in Washington is nowhere close to the widely reported totals.
Clearly, journalists, members of Congress, the lobbying industry and many others believe that the number of registered lobbyists is important. But if the number being tossed around includes lobbyists who are retired, dead or listed under multiple names, then the scope and scale of the lobbying industry is misunderstood.
I don't have a dog in the reform fight; I simply run a small company that works to present the best possible data on lobbying. If part of the reform effort were to include a provision for SOPR to retain their valuable historical information and to present current lobbying workforce data, the debates about lobbying would be more well-informed. Although such a provision might put my company out of business, I know that policymakers need accurate information about the size, scope and composition of the lobbying industry in Washington. It's a risk I'm willing to take.
Debra Mayberry is president of Columbia Books Inc., publisher of several directories listing professionals, including lobbyists and association executives.