Americans pay members of Congress $174,000 a year — more than $93 million in all — to represent them in Washington. But some taxpayers have been paying lobbyists well over $100 million more a year to promote the interests of their city, water district or public college before those same members of Congress.
Such double representation “really flies in the face of good government,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “Lawmakers are supposed to watch out for the interests of their district.”
Public lobbying increased during past decade, with more than 2,300 government and public educational institutions spending over $1.2 billion to press their causes with the national government. Institutions with lobbyists make up only about 2 percent of all state and local governments and public colleges.
Those figures come from a review by Scripps Howard News Service in partnership with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The center and its Website, OpenSecrets.org, are the nation’s most comprehensive resources for federal campaign finance and lobbying.
“That’s an absolutely outrageous amount that’s been taken right out of the pockets of students and state and local taxpayers,’’ said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, D.C.
“The dirty little secret in Washington is that some of the biggest supplicants for pork and money are governments and school systems,’’ Paige added.
Spending on public-sector lobbying peaked at $135 million in 2008 and 2009, when officials scrambled to tap into the nearly $800 billion stimulus package to fund public works projects and academic programs. Spending dipped slightly to $134.3 million last year.
Effectiveness of lobbyists versus elected officials is hard to calculate. Lobbying reports identify only how much a lobbyist spends and broad topics addressed. Reports to Congress never reveal exactly who was contacted or the result..
Lobbying overall is a major industry in Washington, with some 13,000 registered lobbyists spending a record $3.5 billion last year for public and private clients.
Public officials defend the return on investment for lobbying, saying consultants collaborate with local congressional delegations to get grants and rule changes worth more than lobbyists’ fees.
For instance, Abilene, Texas (population 100,000), has paid $740,000 for a lobbyist in Washington since 2000. Over time, he has brought in more money in grants and favorable rule changes than he has been paid, local officials said. Last year alone, Abilene got $675,000 toward flood control, public transit and an industrial park, while paying its lobbyist $74,000.
“It’s often very valuable to have that in-person discussion as opposed to emails and telephone calls,” city manager Larry Gilley said.
“Lobbying is a cost-effective investment. The clients get more money back than they put into it,” said Bill Allison, a spokesman for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving government transparency.
Some lobbyists argue they can better serve as the federal relations office for local officials because hometown lawmakers can’t follow all the issues that affect a city or college.
Federal lawmakers “have all kinds of stuff coming at them all the time, and they’re not really prepared to do the things for local governments that people who criticize lobbying think they should,’’ said William Ferguson Jr., CEO of The Ferguson Group, a Washington lobbying firm that represents more than 200 government and related clients.
James Thurber, a professor of government at American University, dismisses the notion that lawmakers are too busy to track all hometown interests. “I don’t buy that. They want to get re-elected, so they’ll be responsive to local political leaders who seek their help.”
Some jurisdictions have decided that lobbyists are not the best investment for their depleted local treasuries.
Many worry support from Washington is drying up. Last year, lawmakers tucked nearly 9,500 earmarks — special projects worth $15.9 billion — into a $3.8 trillion budget that left intact most programs supporting local governments.
But Congress has put a moratorium on earmarks this year and next, responding to criticism that they favored special interests. With that and deficit-reduction goals, heavy cuts are expected in federal allocations for many domestic programs.
So most jurisdictions with lobbyists are trying to keep them to help preserve grants and subsidies.
“We are trying to hold on to what’s left and have a fighting chance to pursue federal dollars through competitive grants,’’ said Mike Legg, city manager of Kannapolis, N.C.
The city of 43,000, northeast of Charlotte, has paid $80,000 a year for lobbying since 2005. It got more than $1.5 million in appropriations last year..
Lobbying by public colleges and universities has been particularly robust, growing from $10 million in 1998 to more than $44 million last year. Many larger schools have their own offices and staff in Washington plus outside lobbyists.
Records show the State University of New York, with 64 campuses, spent $1.5 million – the most of any public university in 2010 — to lobby with seven staff members out of its Washington office, plus another $400,000 to pay for nine outside lobbyists.
Criticism of the spending plus austerity measures this year have left SUNY’s Washington office with just one staff member, plus a vice chancellor for federal relations in New York City. University officials did not respond to requests for comment about lobbying.
First-quarter reports filed with Congress show many public colleges continuing to pay for lobbying at a pace similar to last year’s, while others are cutting back.
The Texas Tech system, which reported spending $560,000 on lobbying last year, spent just $80,000 for representation in the first three months of 2011. Said Joseph Rallo, president of the system’s Angelo State University: “Sometimes you need someone to make your case.”
The Sunlight Foundation’s Allison said many lobbyists have told him there still will be ways to steer special projects or grants to local and state clients and they’re hustling to find them.
“Everybody’s trying to figure out what this new system is and make it work for their clients.”