Economic Development

Mr. Smith Goes to K st.

A lot of the dollars that feed the Washington lobby establishment are coming from back home.
by | May 2006

Congress and state legislatures have been chattering all spring about tighter lobbying rules, but in the meantime, governments themselves continue to be among the most ardent favor-seekers. The amount that state and local governments spend lobbying Washington has shot up by more than 50 percent since the late 1990s.

In the past seven years, some 1,400 local units of government have spent at least $380 million on federal lobbying, while states have spent $63 million. "Basically, what is taking place is that state and local tax dollars are being used to pay for a lobbyist middleman from K Street to go after your federal tax dollars," says Alex Knott, of the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group.

That sounds a little ironic. After all, members of Congress represent the same constituents as their state and local brethren, so you wouldn't think they'd need much reminding to make sure priority projects at home get funded. But in today's federal budget environment, with unlimited numbers of projects chasing limited numbers of dollars, state and local governments are viewed--even by the congressmen who are supposed to speak for them--as just another set of supplicants.

"In hard or difficult budget times, advocacy becomes more important to giving a city any advantage in securing their federal needs," says Mickey Ibarra, former director of intergovernmental affairs in the Clinton administration, now lobbying for Albuquerque and other clients. "During my time at the White House, it was truly an advantage for a city that was always banging on the door, as opposed to some that would send us a letter or call once."

But if the current rules of the game give the advantage to governments that hire professionals to knock for them, that doesn't mean they always spend their money wisely. Too often, a firm is hired for its expertise or contacts but kept on the public payroll long after either one or both of those assets have passed their expiration date.

That's why the Miami-Dade County Commission just cut its lobbying budget in half and slashed the number of firms it contracts with from seven to three. The county now assigns individual firms to work on specific projects, rather than letting all of its lobbyists claim to be responsible any time the county makes a big score. "We didn't have a legitimate measuring device," says Commissioner Sally Heyman. "When one thing got through, six different lobbyists took the credit for it."


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