Shedding Light on K Street

Keeping track of the vast amount of lobbyist dollars flowing through the nation's capital isn't easy. But a new study shows more can be done to follow the influence-peddling money trail.

Calling federal lobbying "an industry in its own right," the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Public Integrity last week released a report on lobbyist spending. In 2003, corporations, unions, and special interest groups poured some $2.4 billion into lobbyist coffers, attempting to bend the government to their various points of view. The vast majority of that amount is spent on salaries and offices, though some goes toward trips and entertainment. Note: The figure does not include campaign contributions.

And that's just the tally of the lobbyists registered to contact directly administration officials and members of Congress. It doesn't account for the growing phenomenon of indirect lobbying, such as contacting grass-roots groups to drum up support for a cause.

The sheer amount of spending by lobbyists is troubling - $13 billion between 1998 and mid-2004. And the message to average citizens: One has to spend vast amounts to sway Congress or the White House; a simple letter, phone call, or e-mail likely won't be seriously considered.

Just as worrisome is the fact that the regulation of registered lobbyists isn't adequate. The center estimates some 14,000 lobbyist disclosure documents were missing between 1998 and 2004; the penalty for not filing is minimal. And the House and Senate offices monitoring what lobbyists on Washington's famed K Street are doing have limited powers. They're poorly staffed, and cannot conduct probes.

Lobbying now is the preferred activity for many who retire from government service, and the work is highly lucrative. All the more reason to keep much better track of what the nation's lobbyists are up to.

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