Officially, Shrinking—Unofficially, Exploding
On paper, the lobbying industry is quickly disappearing. In January, records indicated that for a third straight year, overall spending on lobbying decreased. Lobbyists themselves continue to deregister. In 2013, the number of registered lobbyists dipped to 12,281, the lowest number on file since 2002.
But experts say that lobbying isn’t dying; instead, it’s simply going underground. The problem, says American University professor James Thurber, who has studied congressional lobbying for more than thirty years, is that “most of what is going on in Washington is not covered” by the lobbyist-registration system. Thurber, who is currently advising the American Bar Association’s lobbying-reform task force, adds that his research suggests the true number of working lobbyists is closer to 100,000.
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 the official figure puts the annual spending on lobbying at $3.2 billion in 2013, Thurber estimates that the industry brings in more than $9 billion a year. Other experts have made similar estimates, but no one is sure how large the industry has become. Lee Drutman, a lobbying expert at the Sunlight Foundation, says that at least twice as much is spent on lobbying as is officially reported.