K-Ching

Buoyant first-quarter revenue numbers from K Street’s leading lobbying firms, reported in The Hill on Tuesday, are a token of the vast size and power of the federal government.

Washington’s influence on the lives and livelihoods of America’s 300 million people is apparent in so many ways. But the continued strength of earnings from lobbying is particularly illuminating now that the country has probably slipped into recession. It demonstrates that Washington is big enough to create its own weather system; it has its own economic climate.

This is not to argue that Washington, its people or its environs are somehow immune to all the vicissitudes afflicting their fellow citizens around the nation. The calamity of foreclosure is being visited upon unfortunate or imprudent borrowers around the capital just as it is elsewhere.

Nevertheless, first-quarter numbers suggest that the lobbying industry is not suffering as many other industries are. Patton Boggs pulled in $10.3 million in the first quarter, which seems to put it on course to match the $42.7 million it made in all of last year. Other big lobby shops — Akin Gump, Van Scoyoc, Cassidy & Associates — were apparently similarly unaffected by any slowdown.

Some caveats need to be mentioned. We only have first-quarter numbers to go on, and one swallow doesn’t mean it’s summer. It is also a presidential election year, and the campaign is sucking attention away from legislating. But still, K Street’s haul was undoubtedly robust.

The point is that lobbying is insulated in unique ways from the cycles to which most other industries are prey. In boom times, when there is lots of money around, everyone wants to get as much as they can. But, equally, when money is scarce, people will naturally fight hard to make sure it is not they who get shortchanged.

So, as a recession shrinks federal revenues while increasing spending on social programs, there are a thousand and one organizations working to make sure their clients avoid any financial hit. Intense lobbying of the federal government is a measure of the fact that Washington’s influence extends so deeply into the nooks and crannies of the economy, regulating this and subsidizing that.

And that influence (some would describe it as intrusive) is unlikely to do anything but increase. Those who regard lobbying as somehow a nefarious practice — this newspaper is not among them — are also often the same people who want to bring more and more of the economy under the control of the federal government. There is a dichotomy here, which goes widely unrecognized or remarked on.