Companies hire Washington lobbyists before bad news breaks

Wild-turkey hunters know how to spot “strut marks” or mimic a gobbler’s calls, but they’re less familiar with the rituals of Washington congressmen and -women.

So the National Wild Turkey Federation, wanting federal help for preserving habitats, hired a guide of sorts to the marbled corridors of power. In doing so, the group also boosted the numbers of another species altogether: the Washington lobbyist.

Over the past three years, the federation has paid Cornerstone Government Affairs $280,000 to lobby for federal appropriations and agriculture conservation policies. And the federation has not gone home empty-handed. Cornerstone helped win a $250,000 earmark in the agriculture appropriations bill in 2006. In 2005, the federation won two earmarks worth a total of $266,000.

As Congress looks to restrict lobbying activities in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, there are seemingly few entities that wouldn’t be affected by changes to the industry.

Estimates vary widely on the number of registered lobbyists who make their living in Washington, from 30,000 to just more than 11,000. But one thing seems certain: K Street is booming.

A lot more than turkeys are behind the boom. Everyone from pornographers to court reporters to cell-phone tower erectors — in addition to legions of Fortune 500 companies that dominate K Street — have a presence in Washington.

James Thurber, the director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, noted last week during a conference the center sponsored on lobbying reform that $2.13 billion was spent on lobbying in 2004. That equates to $407,000 per member per month, he said.

Thurber said a doctoral student’s study of the lobbying industry estimated that there might be as many as 150,000 people working to influence public policy, even though most may not be actively lobbying Congress.

“There has been a dramatic growth,” Thurber said.

Experts point to a number of factors to explain the industry’s rise, from an increase in federal appropriations earmarks to an increasingly complex tax code.

But, broadly speaking, the growth on K Street and within corporate offices seems to be related to a general recognition in the value of having Washington representation, both to defend against the imposition of harmful policies and to seek out favorable earmarks or alterations in regulations, experts say.

“The federal government has enormous power through tax and spending to influence the financial health of companies,” said Matthew Miller, a senior fellow on Center for American Progress who has written on the lobbying industry in his monthly column in Fortune magazine.

Bad news for a company is often good news for K Street. Microsoft famously went lobbyist-less until a Department of Justice anti-trust investigation.

“Bill Gates felt he could run a company without having Washington representation,” Thurber said. Microsoft has since seen the light. The software giant had more than 10 firms on retainer last year, in addition to its in-house team of lobbyists.

Another American business icon, Wal-Mart, also eschewed K Street for a time. The subject of an aggressive campaign questioning everything from its hiring practices to the benefits it offers its workers, Wal-Mart has recently gone on the offensive. The new strategy included increasing the size of its Washington office from four people to 14.

Another victim of bad PR — the adult-film industry — similarly has increased its presence here. Upset that it was the subject of critical Senate hearings into adult films and not given a chance to dispute the charges, adult-film makers formed the Free Speech Coalition and hired the Raben Group.

“When you are treated that way, you know, we felt maybe we needed some professional help,” said Kat Sunlove, the director of legislative affairs for the Coalition, which is based in California.

Sunlove said the Raben Group, which specializes in civil-rights law, has helped set up meetings between adult-film representatives and staffers to educate Congress on such things as how the Internet has affected the industry and what the industry is doing to protect against child pornography.

Increasingly, experts say, companies and other entities are going on offense in Washington, not waiting for bad news to hit before they become engaged.

In turn, the lobbying industry has become much more specialized in the services it offers to advance an argument, Thurber and others say. There are grassroots and so-called astroturf campaigns (polling and focus groups, issue advertisements in radio and TV) — all intended to influence public policy.

Companies can spend thousands hiring a firm for its contacts with key members and retain another firm for its expertise on telecom law, for example. Vonage, an Internet telecommunications company, hired one firm to build relationships with members from its home state of New Jersey and another to make inroads with congressional leaders as it sought congressional help to meet a Federal Communications Commission-imposed deadline on providing 911 services.

In some cases firms are hired to conduct polling or focus groups as part of a campaign to influence public opinion. Others may be adept at forming coalitions among the companies and trade associations, even though the companies and trade associations are already represented in Washington.

Frustrated by their lack of progress in changing what they saw as an overly burdensome process for relicensing power plants, a group of hydroelectric companies hired Wexler and Walker Public Policy Associates to gin up grassroots support to challenge what the companies saw as onerous environmental regulations imposed by the various agencies that review license applications.

The coalition, called Water Power, helped add favorable language to the energy bill Congress passed in August.

The example underscores another point: the federal bureaucracy can be as powerful as Capitol Hill. In fact, experts say more lobbying likely goes on influencing various agencies than in member offices.

“Congress is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Kansas University professor of political science Burdett Loomis, who has written and edited two books on lobbying, The Sound of Money and Interest Group Politics.

Between 1998 and 2004, the Center for Public Integrity found that more than 500 companies and organizations lobbied the Internal Revenue Service.

The American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association, or ADOGA, has relied on Ball Janik, a law-lobbying firm that represents a number of Western interests, to defend tariffs on imported dehydrated onion and garlic products since 1989.

Ball Janik’s Irene Ringwood says the bulk of her work is arguing before the International Trade Commission, the United States trade representative and the Foreign Agriculture Service in favor of the tariff. Without it, the small industry, which employs only around 4,000 workers, would be unlikely to survive.

Companies aren’t the only ones turning to K Street. Foreign countries, American universities and local governments have contributed to the rise in federal lobbying.

According to a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, more than 300 universities spent nearly $132 million over the past six years. More than 1,400 local governments have spent more than $357 million to secure earmarks over that same time frame.

“Everyone is represented,” Loomis said. That includes his employer. From 2003 to 2005, Kansas hired lobbying powerhouse Van Scoyoc & Associates to lobby for federal appropriations.

The increase has been so pronounced that some of his undergraduate students now dream of a life on K Street. “When I started, no one talked about becoming a lobbyist,” Loomis said.

Which raises another factor in the rise of the number of lobbyists: The money is good. Staffers can go from relatively meager salaries to earning easily in the six figures.

“A lot of these folks are living on macaroni and Ramen noodles, and they go to K Street and they are eating caviar and drinking Dom Perignon,” said Keith Ashdown, the vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group.