Reforms fall short
Lobbyists seldom get into trouble for filing such a paucity of information despite the 2007 passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal.
The bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared upon its introduction, would help create the “most open and honest Congress in history.” President George W. Bush said upon signing it into law that it didn’t go far enough, and that he would “work with the Congress to improve upon this legislation.”
At first, the reforms showed promise.
The law’s “full public disclosure of lobbying” section requires lobbyists to file disclosures electronically and do so quarterly instead of semiannually. It requires them to provide more information about clients and detail political contributions. It increased civil and criminal penalties for failing to comply with disclosure requirements.
Despite the increased penalties, lobbyists routinely sidestep the law’s disclosure requirements. They also avoid the ban on buying members of Congress meals and gifts by throwing lavish campaign fundraisers for them— events that remain perfectly legal. Lobbyists also continue to bundle campaign donations for notable lawmakers, though they are required to disclose the contributions.
Many lobbyists have avoided detection altogether and have stopped registering, even as they continue their employment with the same firms where they represent the same set of clients. Some firmly argue that they’re well within their rights not to register.
Abramoff — a former super lobbyist who served 3 ½ years in prison for fraud and corruption — himself considers the reforms made in his name a failure and lobbying disclosure rules a veritable mess.
“After everyone erected the gallows for me, they just went back to what they were doing before,” Abramoff said. “Gigantic problems remain.”
Some lawmakers — even lobbyists themselves — believe it’s again time to reform the way lobbyists are allowed to ply their craft.
Lobbyist registration is required when an influence practitioner spends at least 20 percent of his or her time for a paying client lobbying the federal government, per the complex federal definitions of “lobbyist” and “lobbying activities.”
As regulations have tightened and anti-lobbyist actions have heightened, the overall number of federally registered lobbyists has declined. The amount of money reportedly spent on federal lobbying efforts has also slipped each year since 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The drop, some have theorized, may be due to more lobbyists terminating their registrations rather than doing less influencing. President Barack Obama’s executive actions against the profession may have prompted lobbyists to go underground. And there is little fear of punishment for unregistered lobbying.
“There are certainly firms, here and there, that should probably register but do not,” said Rob Kelner, chairman of law and lobbying firm Covington & Burling’s election and political law practice group. “It’s not hard to operate in a way to avoid the need to register. People now push the envelope and take risks they might not otherwise take.”
Abramoff, who since exiting prison has fashioned himself a reformer, says the very word “lobbyist” is pejorative, and therefore, “you come off as a lot more wholesome when you say you’re a ‘strategic adviser.’ ”
But strong lobbying laws don’t mean strong enforcement, as the federal government doesn’t put much effort into policing the lobbying industry.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is tasked by Congress with investigating potential violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act, most of which arrive in the form of referrals from Congress’ clerk of the House or secretary of the Senate.
Lobbyists who violate federal disclosure provisions could face a $200,000 fine and up to five years in prison — seemingly strict punishments created as part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.
But of the 3,042 referrals the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia received from 2009 to 2012, almost all resulted in no penalties, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. The handful that have ever resulted in fines involve lobbying law violations that are absurdly overt and sustained.
Unregistered go unchecked
Likewise, the vast majority of referrals involve registered lobbyists potentially acting badly, not un-lobbyists who should be registering and disclosing their activities but do not.
The issue of illegally unregistered lobbyists “isn’t outside the purview” of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, spokesman William Miller said. “However, the referrals we are statutorily required to receive from Congress mainly consist of registered lobbyists who fail to file required reports.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia uses a contract paralegal to work full time on lobbying-related cases, Miller said. Five civil attorneys and one criminal attorney, who are supervised by a deputy chief in the office’s civil division, are also available to work on lobbying cases, as needed, he said.
“We continually assess our resource needs throughout the office and will make adjustments as necessary, in this area, and in all of our practice areas,” Miller said.
Perhaps sensing a power vacuum, other government entities not typically associated with lobbying enforcement have recently asserted themselves.
Audit firm Ernst & Young, which operates a federal lobbying subsidiary, last month agreed to pay $4 million to settle a case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission that the firm had illegal potential conflicts of interest because it lobbied on behalf of two audit clients.
And the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent and little-known congressional operation, in July accused an unnamed “entity” of breaking lobbying laws by not registering to lobby. It’s the first time the office, which typically trades in questionable campaign, travel and expenditure activities among congressional members and employees, took such an action against what appears to be a government influence operation.
Nevertheless, such instances remain rare.
Former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who in 2013 registered as a lobbyist on the first day his two-year lobbying ban under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act expired, scoffs at efforts to squelch hired political influencers.
He, like hundreds of other former Republican and Democratic members of Congress, quickly entered the government influence industry upon exiting public service, saying he has every right to do so.
Indeed, the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances” — in other words, lobby on behalf of any interest or cause — is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment alongside the freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly.
Lobbyists make lots of money because they are effective, and they are effective because Congress can be a scary place for a novice.
“A lobbyist’s stock in trade is his knowledge of the way the system works,” said Bennett, one of 17 senators to co-sponsor the lobbying reform act, although he said he does not remember being a co-sponsor. “If you have an issue that is very complex, going to Congress without a lobbyist is like going to court without a lawyer.”
Like Xavier University and many other colleges, Missouri State University sought professional lobbying help to secure federal funding.
The school hired lobbying giant Patton Boggs LLP (now Squire Patton Boggs) in 2007, with the firm disclosing in a federal filing that it would lobby for Missouri State on “BUD” and “EDU” — codes for budget and education issues. Under the heading “specific lobbying issues,” it listed only “funding for various education programs.” Later filings generally disclosed lobbying on appropriations bills.
But in its 2007 contract with Missouri State University, Patton Boggs provided a five-page game plan for influencing lawmakers and helping the school win federal money.
The firm boasted of its “close ties” with the Missouri congressional delegation and name-dropped seven federal lawmakers, including Sens. Kit Bond and Claire McCaskill and now-Sen. Roy Blunt, each of Missouri. In a separate 2012 contract, Patton Boggs added Rep. Billy Long to its friends list and mentioned how Rep. Kenny Hulshof’s political committee had been a firm client.
The contract promised the university “direct access to decision makers at senior levels in the government.” The firm would use its “knowledge of the legislative process” to attract grants and obtain line-item funding in appropriations bills.
The 2012 contract noted that “Patton Boggs will assist Missouri State by seeking Congressional appropriations for your priority objectives — in preparation for a possible return to the practice of earmarking appropriation bills.”
In a lobbying proposal in 2008 to Louisiana-based building securities firm MBI Global, Patton Boggs said it could help the company “become a major player with the numerous agencies within the U.S. Department of Defense” by “providing you with direct access to the Department of Defense so that you can reach the people who will make the decision to purchase and use your technology.”
Patton Boggs declined to comment on its clients or disclosure practices. “We’re not really in the habit of discussing our contracts,” firm spokesman Angelo Kakolyris said.