Lobbyist business booms despite years of controversy

The number of lobbyists in Washington doubled from 2000 to 2008, and the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that the industry raked in an estimated $3.3  billion last year alone. 

The total number of lobbyists jumped to roughly 35,000 in 2008, according to a report in The Washington Post, while a report in Bloomberg News tallied the number of healthcare lobbyists at 3,300 — six lobbyists for each of the 535 members of the House and Senate.

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), himself a former lobbyist and mayor of Imperial Beach, compared the proliferation of lobbyists for local governments to an arms race.

“When you look at all this money that’s being thrown around, that’s got to be a huge incentive to invest in somebody to make sure that you try to get somewhere close to your fair share,” he said. 

Both parties have pursued lobbying reforms, with limited success. Both have also seen their power on Capitol Hill rise and fall because of lobbying controversies. 
Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 at least in part because of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the perception that a culture of corruption had taken hold of Washington under Republican control of the White House and Congress. 

Abramoff, a lobbyist who bragged of his close connections to congressional leaders, brazenly broke lobbying and ethics rules by wooing members with trips to luxurious golf courses and meals and tickets to sporting events and concerts.  Abramoff and one member of Congress, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), were jailed in connection with the scandal. Other figures in the controversy still face court battles or sentencing. 

Ethics and lobbying laws were tightened in 2007 when the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. It required lobbyists to provide more transparency and file additional disclosures about their clients’ work and political contributions.

It also limited other means lobbyists use to influence lawmakers, such as funding trips. Private entities now can only take members on two-day excursions and must justify the educational value of the travel to the House and Senate ethics committees. The law also introduced criminal penalties for violating lobbying rules. 

On the campaign trail last year, President Barack Obama railed against the rise and power of special interests. He refused to accept political donations from federally registered lobbyists and vowed to limit their influence in his administration. 

Since taking office, he has restricted the ability of people to lobby the administration, and the White House recently announced that registered lobbyists would not be re-appointed to the more than 1,000 boards that provide advice to the White House.

Meredith McGehee, the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, has worked on ethics issues for more than 20 years, and attributes most of the changes to lawmakers recognizing the political power of claiming the ethical high ground.

When McGehee first came to Washington, members of Congress were allowed to accept thousands of dollars for a speech or appearance. Chairmen of major committees dined at Washington steakhouses, knowing lobbyists would take turns picking up the tab. Other lawmakers called corporations and demanded to use their jets.

Things started to change after the Keating Five political scandal involving the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s. That and other ethics issues contributed to Republicans winning control of the House in the 1994 election.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who helped pressure former Democratic Rep. Jim Wright into resigning as Speaker over ethics charges, faced payback from Democrats. They brought 84 charges against Gingrich during his term, 83 of which were dropped.

The House also voted to reprimand Gingrich for ethics violations in 1997, and he resigned a year later.

“The Keating Five, Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich scandals — those three — turned the ethics issue from a personal focus to a political focus,” McGehee recalled. “The parties began to recognize the issue was powerful at the ballot box.”

Partisan tensions over ethics have simmered ever since, and have sometimes exploded over the past 15 years.

Gingrich and Republicans tightened ethics rules after winning the House, the first time in 50 years that the lobbying rules had been changed. Lobbyists were required to register with the clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate; anyone failing to do so faced a civil fine of up to $50,000.

But their legislation defined the term “lobbying” broadly, so that lobbyists could avoid disclosure.

Republicans also instituted a stricter gift ban. Special interests could no longer pay for members’ travel to charity events, such as golf tournaments. Members and their aides were supposed to accept only $50 on any gift or meal from a lobbyist, with an aggregate annual limit on all gifts from one source of up to $100.

 In 2003, however, Republicans loosened their own rules to allow reimbursement for travel to charitable events and also eliminated the “pizza rule,” a cap of $50 per office on a gift of perishable food. The revision allowed $50 per person, what became known as the “lobster rule.” 

Democrats have now instituted their own new rules, but also have seen a number of their members step into controversy. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), for example, are under investigation by the House ethics panel.