A Lobbyist by Any Other Name

A Lobbyist by Any Other Name

Why you should care

Because rules exist for a reason, but not everyone’s playing the same game. 

If you’re a devotee of House of Cards villain-protagonist Francis Underwood, maybe this won’t come as news to you — but there’s something afoot with Washington lobbyists. They’ve turned ephemeral on us. According to a new report by nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org , there are fewer lobbyists registered in D.C. in 2013 than there were in 2012. But that’s not because the numbers are really on the decline. It’s because the lobbyists might not be so willing to wear their name tags anymore, the report argues.

The number of active lobbyists registered with the federal government in 2013 was 12,279 — more than 150 fewer than the previous year. Sure, that’s not that many (just about 1 percent of the total number out there), but it’s worth a pause. Tracking the difference showed that many of the lobbyists who didn’t register still work at the same firms — some even have the same titles. They just didn’t register this time around. Turns out it’s easier to fly under the radar in D.C. than it should be.

As OpenSecrets put it:

Lobbyists are not fleeing K Street in droves — rather they are doing similar work for the same companies.

For the skeptical at heart, this might not seem new — but it’s certainly one more statistical factoid worth filing away.

And it matters, of course, because there’s a lot of money in lobbying, and a lot at stake. In 2013, companies spent $3.1 billion on lobbying, according to the Motley Fool. And just because a company is publicly traded doesn’t mean it discloses exactly how that money is spent. (The Fool notes that the lobbying investment reaped pretty big returns for companies that fought for government benefits.)

So there’s the rub. If you spend significant time lobbying — and if you spend thousands of dollars on it over the course of a year — you are required by law to register as a lobbyist. There are fees to be paid, reports to be submitted, and — depending on state laws — restrictions on how quickly government employees can take a lobbying position after leaving the state gig, in order to curb potential unfair practices.

But shareholders might take significant issue with the ways these results are achieved, if they knew about them in the first place.

— Aimee Duffy, The Motley Fool

But how closely does the government really track the big movers who skirt the edge of the law? Possibly not closely enough. There are lobbying law updates every few years, but they aren’t keeping up with Washington’s demands. There’s no reason Washington can’t redefine who registers, or require more openness in expenditures and lobbying reports. Information shouldn’t be something to fear.

Unless, of course, you have something to hide.

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