Only a handful of recipients of federal contracts and grants have filed reports under a new law that requires them to disclose detailed information about their use of lobbyists to influence members of Congress and executive branch officials.
Under the law, which was drafted and pushed through Congress last year by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), federal agencies were supposed to collect reports from companies, universities and others who hire lobbyists to help them get specific contracts and loans.
The disclosure forms were to be forwarded to Congress by May 31. But the first batch indicates the reporting system, which is supposed to shed new light on the role lobbyists play in the half-trillion-dollar-a-year appropriations process, is off to a slow start.
For example, the Defense Department filed just one disclosure form for the initial reporting period, Dec. 23 through March 31. The report was submitted by the Howmet Corp. of Greenwich, Conn., the wholly owned subsidiary of the French company Pechiney. Howmet manufactures turbine blades for military aircraft.
The firm disclosed that it had paid $2,000 to Washington lobbyist Morris J. Amitay to make legal presentations to Defense Department and congressional representatives. Amitay said he had argued that foreign-owned subsidiaries have a right to obtain unclassified information with which to prepare contract bids on an equal footing with U.S. firms.
Informed that Howmet was the only company that had filed a lobbying disclosure report with the Pentagon, Amitay quipped: "I think it's sort of odd. I can't believe no one was in touch with the Defense Department to talk about contracts. The 'peace dividend' is one thing, but this is ridiculous."
Steve Slasky in the Office of the Secretary of Defense acknowledged that the Pentagon had expected to receive more reports. But he said contractors were not notified of the reporting requirements until February, and contracts awarded before Dec. 23 were not covered.
The so-called Byrd Amendment was enacted in the wake of disclosures last year that applicants for subsidized federal housing loans had paid huge "consulting fees" to former high-ranking U.S. officials. Byrd also was reacting to information that a university in his state had been paying a lobbyist large fees to get grants inserted into appropriation bills. Byrd chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In general, the law requires all recipients of federal contracts, grants, loans and loan guarantees of more than $100,000 to certify that they have not used appropriated funds to pay people to influence government officials, members of Congress or their staffs.
If they have used non-appropriated funds to obtain a specific award, they must file a "disclosure of lobbying activities" report providing details of fees and persons contacted. Failure to comply can result in a fine of $10,000 to $100,000.
Since the legislation was first drafted, however, lobbyists and contractors have succeeded in writing a number of changes into the law and regulations. Companies are not required to report the normal work of Washington-based corporate staffs -- an exemption that some lobbyists say works to the advantage of big contractors. Providing "professional and technical services" to officials is not considered lobbying. A June 12 "clarification" issued by the Office of Management and Budget also exempts sales representatives who discuss their products with officials before the government solicits bids.
As of Friday, the departments of State and Transportation had not responded to the reporting requirement, though a Transportation official said 10 disclosure forms had been sent on June 25 -- after the official deadline -- and should arrive on Capitol Hill momentarily.
The departments of Energy, Commerce and Justice forwarded only one report each, and the departments of Treasury, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services sent letters saying no reports had been received from contractors.
A majority of the several dozen reports that were submitted by various agencies indicated confusion over the law. Most of them made clear that the contractor did not have a lobbyist, which excluded them from the filing requirement.
Secretary Jack Kemp, whose Department of Housing and Urban Development was wracked by an influence-peddling scandal before he took office, apologized in a letter to Secretary of the Senate Walter J. Stewart that virtually all of the disclosure forms forwarded by his department contained mistakes.
Expressing concern, Kemp said: "Submissions of this type indicate that the Byrd Amendment requirements are not well understood by the public."
"I have my problems with the law as it's written and with the guidelines that the Office of Management and Budget has sent out, but I think we as lobbyists ought to be encouraging our clients to file if the law applies," said Howard Marlowe, immediate past president of the American League of Lobbyists.
A spokeswoman for Byrd said the senator was willing to give the system time to work. She said there were still some bugs to be worked out in the law. The next filings are due Nov. 30.
The handful of disclosure forms sent to Congress provide an intriguing view of the lobbying business.
For example, Mississippi State University reported paying James C. Jordan Associates of Washington a $48,000 retainer. The report was filed in connection with an application with the Energy Department to fund an $8,750,000 expansion of its Diagnostic Instrumentation and Analysis Laboratory, which is developing new means of analyzing gases from burning coal.
Another report showed that Cassidy & Associates of Washington is paid $175,000 by the University of Kentucky in Lexington to provide a variety of services for an unspecified period. The report was filed in connection with the university's application to the Economic Development Administration for $4.5 million with which to build a science center. The award, previously earmarked in appropriations legislation, was approved on March 14, according to an EDA spokeswoman.
Byrd has said he is not opposed to lobbying activities, only to abuses in the system. In that respect there is some evidence that the law already has had an impact.
"Companies tell us they're not going to want to hire the ex-secretary of whatever to lobby," said one official. "We've got a sense from companies that they're not going to do that anymore if it's going to become public."