Corruption is nothing if not resilient. Though official lobbying has faced some token regulation it has been revealed in a must read piece by Lee Fang that there now exists an entire shadow lobbying system that dwarfs the official one. Lobbyists are deregistering but not really stopping their lobbying work. While the number of official lobbyists has dropped to the 12,000 range some estimates have unofficial lobbyists numbering as high as 100,000.
All that President Obama’s “reforms” seem to have done is drive influence peddling underground. The game continues, just with less sunlight.
A loophole-ridden law, poor enforcement, the development of increasingly sophisticated strategies that enlist third-party validators and create faux-grassroots campaigns, along with an Obama administration executive order that gave many in the profession a disincentive to register—all of these forces have combined to produce a near-total collapse of the system that was designed to keep tabs on federal lobbying.
While official disclosures have money being spent on lobbying in 2013 as $3 billion, analysts claim the real number is closer to $9 billion. A multibillion dollar industry based on influence the government off the books and out of sight. What could go wrong?
Of course deregistering to evade lobbying regulations is a rather transparent attempt to circumvent the law. Luckily for the unofficial lobbyists those in charge of enforcing the law have apparently thrown up their hands.
Enforcement authority ultimately lies with the United States Attorney’s Office for Washington, DC. In an interview, Keith Morgan, the deputy chief of that office, acknowledged that the Justice Department has largely pursued cases in which a registered lobbyist has failed to update a quarterly statement or fallen delinquent, and the House clerk or secretary of the Senate has caught the error. Though there have been investigations, Morgan’s office has never prosecuted anyone for failing to register or for deregistering while continuing to lobby. “We have no ability to know if somebody doesn’t register unless some insider or a competitor comes and says, ‘We have reason to believe that this individual or this group is lobbying,’” Morgan says. To the best of his knowledge, even though Congress added criminal penalties for failing to disclose lobbying activities, there has not been one single case of criminal enforcement of the law.
So lots of carrots for breaking the law and no stick. And let’s be clear about the risk-reward ratio, these shadow lobbyists are making some serious money.
Ex-politicians that refuse to register as lobbyists like Chris Dodd and Tim Pawlenty are raking in millions with annual salaries of $3.3 million and $1.8 million respectively. A former Apple Vice President made $7.5 million helping the company deal with Congress – never registered as a lobbyist. And why should they when there has not been a single prosecution for not registering and providing information to the public as required by law?
President Obama came to office claiming he would bring change and transparency to Washington and clean up lobbying. If that’s his metric for success he’s failing miserably.
Image from the Big Combo under public domain.