Lobbying the watchdogs

Hundreds of companies push their agendas with the GAO, FEC and OGE

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When it comes to lobbying in Washington, ChevronTexaco Corp. knows how to distribute its energy. The petroleum powerhouse is a high-profile fixture on Capitol Hill, spending millions to curry legislative favor. The company's hired guns routinely seek to influence regulations at the Department of Energy, rulemakings at the Environmental Protection Agency—and even independent investigations at the Government Accountability Office.

But ChevronTexaco is hardly unique. The GAO has launched thousands of inquiries into government programs during the past six years. During that time nearly 300 companies and organizations have sought to influence those investigations, according to a study of federal lobbying records by the Center for Public Integrity.

In fact, many of the federal offices responsible for overseeing the integrity of American democracy are among the more than 200 agencies lobbied during the past six years—agencies such as the Federal Election Commission, the Office of Government Ethics and the GAO, which serves as the investigative arm of Congress.

"So many lobbyists cover so many issues, it is not surprising to find them popping up almost everywhere," said lobbying expert Burdett Loomis. Lobbying these oversight agencies, he added, may be a "more indirect" way of influencing government, but it can still be quite effective.

For example, although the GAO writes no legislation and issues no rules or regulations, lobbyists contacting the agency can "affect the context of legislation," said Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. "There is lots of interest in shaping the debate, even if there is not a rule."

The Nuclear Energy Institute ranks high among the organizations trying to shape the legislative debate. The pro-nuclear power trade association is one of the groups that reported contacting the GAO the most during the past six years, Center findings reveal.

The GAO recently issued three reports affecting the interests of the nuclear energy industry, said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the group. These reports included recommendations to Congress about how to handle the oversight of security at nuclear power plants, what funds were needed for nuclear decommissioning and other issues.

Kerekes said his group works with the GAO in order to provide accurate information for the investigations and also a "sound basis for policymaking." He said the GAO periodically contacts the NEI itself when it launches an investigation involving energy industry, but added, "I guarantee we would proactively contact them to make sure they have all the accurate information."

Terry Draver, a senior analyst at the GAO, agreed that contact between agency investigators and interested parties can be initiated by both groups, especially when they are working on a report that affects a certain industry.

"It does not surprise me that other groups would come to make their pitch when the GAO is doing work in their area," Draver told the Center.

Draver said the balance of views expressed to the GAO could be "a concern," but said he thinks the investigators are "professional enough" not to let the loudest voices of special interests interfere with the integrity of their reports.

"We stress that we are nonpartisan, but that does not mean we close our eyes and our ears," Draver said. "It can be helpful; more information is better than less."

The Federal Election Commission, the office responsible for overseeing federal election laws, is also accustomed to hearing the voices of interest groups. More than 40 companies and organizations have reported contacting the agency during the past six years. Unlike the GAO, however, the FEC issues campaign finance law regulations, and that is where most of the lobbying takes place, said FEC spokesman Bob Biersack.

"Most commonly," Biersack said, "[the lobbying] probably comes in the context of our writing and revising regulations and there is a standard process for [submitting comments]. Anyone can do it."

Although many of the companies and organizations that reported contacting the FEC are public advocacy groups such as Common Cause, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen, which lobby to support changes in campaign finance laws, others with less-obvious motives contact the agency as well.

For example, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America is one of the groups that reported contacting the FEC the most during the past six years. The specific lobbying issues listed on the trade association's disclosure forms ranged from "political action committee prior approval" to "blacklisting" and "bid shopping." Representatives from the group declined to comment on its lobbying activities.

Biersack said he was unsure what the association meant by the descriptions on the forms, but said that groups "can't lobby on enforcement [of election laws], so it must be on the rule changes or regulation issues."

Lobbying of the FEC increased notably during the first half of 2004, as the commission interpreted a new law that would regulate the donations of political non-profits. In fact, 13 of the 16 groups that contacted the agency that year did so because of the change in regulation, which Biersack said "triggered lots of controversy in the non-profit community."

The Office of Government Ethics—the body charged with preventing conflicts of interest on the part of government employees—also feels the pressure of special interests. Although the agency was lobbied considerably less than the GAO and the FEC, four groups reported contacting the agency to advance their agenda during the past six years. Most recently the Senior Executives Association, an association of current and former high-level government employees, lobbied the OGE for a change in—what else?—lobbying laws.

In 2004 the group contacted the OGE in favor of a proposed rule change that would reduce the number of senior government employees who are subject to a ban on lobbying their former agencies for one year after leaving government. The rule has not been changed, according to OGE officials.

"Our goal is to work together with them," Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said about contacting the OGE.

And according to lobbying expert Burdett Loomis, it's reasonable to expect that industries will work with oversight agencies. These agencies, he said, need to get their information from somewhere, and they generally do hear all sides of the issues.

But, Loomis added, "The moneyed interests may weigh in more. Well, welcome to the real world."

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