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The Billions in Spending That Continues Even in a 'Do-Nothing Congress

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"Working for a long-serving senator ... is a very good stepping stone to a lucrative career in lobbying."

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The number of laws Congress is on track to pass in its 113th session is at a record-low, and the lame-duck weeks surrounding the 2014 midterm elections certainly won’t encourage additional legislative work.

But that hasn’t stopped the 11,000 registered lobbyists in Washington from raking in billions of dollars. In 2013 alone, firms and individual lobbyists required to file with the government earned more than $3.2 billion to nudge legislative decision-making in their clients’ direction.

Image source: AP Some estimates place lobby spending around $9 billion dollars annually, and the influence industry covers all sides of the hottest political issues in Washington. (AP)

During the last five years, Pharmaceutical Researcher and Manufacturers of America paid over $83 million to hire at least three dozen lobby firms to pursue its interests. That represents just the tip of the medical industry lobbying iceberg: in the first half of 2014, the total for pharmaceuticals and health products influence topped $119 million, including more than 1,300 lobbyists serving 300 clients.

And those figures are just from the companies that actually disclose their lobbying efforts to the government.

Some estimates place the true lobby money total closer to $9 billon, thanks to the 90,000 unregistered lobbyists who curry favor in and around the Senate and House offices without officially reporting their activities to Congress. 

Through July 2014, roughly $1.6 billion registered dollars have gone to lobbyists who report to Congress — a slight downturn from previously disclosed numbers. But watchdogs argue the dip in lobby money isn’t a sign that fewer dollars are spent to influence: rather, more unregistered lobby work is happening under the table through the revolving door that sets up former elected officials and influential government staffers gigs at K Street firms.

A “revolver” is a person who has racked up insight into the government process as well relationships with staffers and congressmen, then subsequently leaves their jobs to accept positions in the corporate world that typically pay out lucrative sums to access their rolodexes and  knowledge of complex federal systems.

According to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan site that tracks money in politics, insurance and business association clients — the second- and third-largest lobby spenders after the pharmaceutical industry – dished out more than $1.3 billion between them in the last five years. And not just that: more than 830 “revolvers” left their government gigs in just these two industries over the last year.

In January, the Sunlight Foundation calculated which congressional offices led to the biggest K Street payouts.

“The basic observation will come as no surprise to anyone who understands lobbying: Working for a long-serving senator — especially one in a key leadership position — is a very good stepping stone to a lucrative career in lobbying,” authors Lee Drutman and Alexander Furnas pointed out. They also noted that revolving door lobbyists who listed a specific congressional office in their lobbying disclosure forms consistently snagged a bigger paycheck than other lobbyists didn’t note where they earned their stripes.

“Between 1998 and 2012, the median revolving lobbyist listing an office earned $87,680 more than the median revolver who didn’t. This difference peaked in 2006, with a difference just more than $122,000. Both groups, however, earn substantially more than active contract lobbyists who don’t list any government experience,” Drutman and Furnas explained.

The “reverse revolving door” can also lead to big bonuses for lobbyists who are willing to return to Capitol Hill to wield their niche influence within the legislative branch.

According to the Nation, Ambrose “Bruce” Hock, was hired by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) as a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Hock, a former Northrop Grumman executive and lobbyist, received up to $450,000 in bonuses and incentive pay from Northrop Grumman two months after he transitioned back to the Hill.

So who is keeping an eye on this complex world money and influence?

Technically, there is a threshold to keep the influence game in check. If a client pays a lobbyist more than $3,000 in a quarterly period, they are supposed to claim that status with the government. But lobbying firms are exempt from registering with the government for work with a particular client if they can claim a majority of their work isn’t strictly “lobbying.”

Additionally, a company or organization that employs in-house lobbyists is exempt from registering with the government if its total expenses for lobbying activities do not exceed or are not expected to exceed $12,500 during a quarterly period.

But the regulation language is vague at best. Even worse, watchdogs say real oversight is essentially nonexistent, so some companies would rather rebrand their influence peddling and simply ask for forgiveness later.

“Rather than using the L-word to describe what they do, many lobbyists prefer the more banal rubric of ‘government relations’ or ‘government affairs,’” Lee Fang of the Nation notes. “Reflecting this trend, the American League of Lobbyists — a professional association for the industry — changed its name (in 2013) to the Association of Government Relations Professionals."

A sign discourages lobbyists from entering a hall that leads to the Maryland state senate chambers in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, on the first day of the 2014 legislative session. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) A sign discourages lobbyists from entering a hall that leads to the Maryland state Senate chambers in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Conversely, it’s important to point out all lobbying isn’t negative, nor do all lobbyist scheme for the biggest possible paycheck.

The lobby practice is legal to ensure minority interests -- including anything from Second Amendment rights to protections of religious beliefs -- can be heard and defended against the corruption of others or the “mere tyranny of the majority.”

But the lobby influence has become so powerful it has toppled the balance of equal “redress of grievances,” and now unless an organization or movement has enough money to support an agenda outside the mainstream or current administration’s purview, it may never get adequate attention in Washington, D.C.

For example, the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the Obama administration has gone on record slamming lobbyists when they didn’t agree with the president's health-care policy, but he happily attended the American Medical Association’s banquet in 2009, just one year after the AMA was named "the health-care industry's top lobbying spender.”

And some of the biggest lobby spenders won’t bother picking sides on an issue — they just flood both ends of the political spectrum with cash.  Northrup Grumman, Goldman Sachs, American Airlines and Comcast are among several companies who have maxed out their possible contributions to both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

With such a significant amount of money behind the lobby influence from every angle, the one upside to a “do-nothing Congress" may be that it keeps the billion-dollar lobby world at bay. Because as of now, there’s no end in sight for the D.C. lobby money train.

• RELATED: Is Washington Broken? Not if You Can Play the Game

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter

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