Note to readers: This story has been reposted. Since the report was originally released, the Center for Public Integrity has changed the way it calculates lobbying expenditures to reflect a more stringent methodology for determining the total amounts. The change was made to correct the potential overstatement of totals. Figures or relevant text that have been changed are indicated with asterisks. (3/31/2006)
At a time of enormous budgetary constraints, states, cities and public schools have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists to plead their cases before legislators and regulators in the nation's capital.
During the last six years, in fact, roughly* 300 universities have spent in excess of $114 million*, while more than 1,400 local governments have doled out more than $343 million* to secure funding for everything from freeways to fire trucks, according to a study of lobbying disclosure records conducted by the Center for Public Integrity. Similarly, the 56 states and U.S. territories, many of them facing severe budget shortfalls, have spent well in excess of $55 million*.
"It's almost like the lobbyist 'tax,'" said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy and communications at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a federal-budget watchdog organization. "If you're from a local entity and you're trying to get funded and you don't have a senior lawmaker on the right committee in Congress, you have to basically pay a tax to lobbyists to get recognized."
Still, public organizations have more to lose by not hiring an advocate on the federal level, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a non-profit organization devoted to addressing social problems and researching policy changes for more effective governance.
"It would be penny-wise, pound-foolish for them not to have a presence in Washington," he said.
Given that congressional representatives are focused, above all, on the consequences that legislation has on their own districts, he added, public agencies benefit from having an additional envoy to pursue their distinct interests.
And if they don't make that effort, Stern said, "the federal government screws the states, the states screw the counties, and the cities and counties don't have any money left."
Lobbying activity reported on behalf of public entities spiked during the past six years, with expenditures by universities, for example, more than* doubling between 1998 and 2003 to $25 million*. Meanwhile, local government spending on lobbyists increased about 110 percent to $70 million*. For states, the figure went up 87 percent to about $10 million*.
The increase is almost inevitable, Ashdown said. Once local governments realize the return hiring a lobbyist can bring, the natural reaction is to reinforce that advantage by spending even more.
"[The result is] this perpetual cycle of having to hire more hired guns to get more federal dollars," he said. Lobbyists for state and local governments and public schools listed appropriations bills as their area of legislative interest on 54 percent of disclosure forms filed since 1998, the Center found. Other top issues were transportation, federal education programs and spending and environmental issues including spending on the superfund cleanup program.
Although an investment in lobbying is better than the alternative for most states, municipalities and public universities, it is still a loss within the budget process, Ashdown says.
"They're basically taking money out of what they're going to get to pay for the project," he told the Center. "They're getting even less money than they would if the process actually worked. To pay for greasing the wheels in Washington, you're getting less money going where it needs to go." But local governments aren't likely to abandon a tactic with a reasonable chance of success, he added, regardless of any hesitations about risking taxpayer money in lobbying ventures that may not pay off.
After all, the prevalence of competitors eager to snatch up any funding not being aggressively pursued leaves them little alternative.
"It really is difficult if you're in public service to unilaterally disarm, and say, 'I'm not going to bring anything back,'" Ashdown said. "If you're an elected official, you do what it takes."
One of the best opportunities for a lobbyist to push a public entity's agenda is through the process of appropriations earmarks, in which funding is approved because a congressman or senator puts it in a bill in such a way that only certain companies can fulfill its terms. Some congressional observers fear that the number and size of earmarks have become excessive in recent years, and it is increasingly narrow special interests that are benefiting most.
"It's not based on the need of any local area, it's based on who you hire," Ashdown noted. "And does anybody from your state sit on the committee? Is anyone on the right committee to have influence?"
"It's not about the best projects anymore."