So much money, so few lobbyists in D.C. How does that math work?

Spending to lobby the US government has almost tripled since 1998, but numbers of registered lobbyists have barely budged. How the work gets done without the scarlet 'L' of lobbyist registration.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
David Wenhold, formerly head of the American League of Lobbyists, meets in 2009 with client Elizabeth Hurst, with the National Court Reporters Association, at the Willard Intercontinental Washington hotel. About 12,600 registered lobbyists work in Washington, a number that hasn't jumped all that much since 1998 – even as spending on lobbying has grown exponentially.

When is a lobbyist not a lobbyist? We ask that because apparently a lot of influence-peddling in Washington is done by robots, ghosts, vampires, or other nonhumans. Total spending on lobbying the federal government has almost tripled since 1998, to $3.3 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Yet the number of registered lobbyists has jumped only about 20 percent, from 10,407 to 12,633.

It’s possible those official lobbyists are just doing a lot more business. But we don’t think that’s it. As presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich has demonstrated via his past work for Freddie Mac, it’s easy to do work that appears lobbyesque yet avoid the scarlet ‘L’ of lobbyist registration. 

One way is to claim that in essence you’re a part-timer. Here’s how this works: Say you’re a Washington consultant and your client is a government-backed mortgage entity. If less than 20 percent of your work time for that client is spent on lobbying activities over a three-month period, then you don’t have to register as a lobbyist, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act

Plus, the definition of “lobbying activities” has some loopholes. Lobby activities include unsolicited calls to lawmakers or US officials, lobby campaign planning, and other stuff intended to influence a particular federal decision or piece of legislation. Yet modern lobbying is a sophisticated activity that involves general polling, ads, commissioned studies, and other work not directly related to any bending of congressional elbows about an amendment to a House bill.

“Each of these can be an effective component of a lobbying campaign, but even registered lobbyists don’t need to disclose them,” wrote Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, in a Hill op-ed on the subject late last year.

Activities defined as educational don’t count, either. An ex-pol can give lots of speeches at seminars sponsored by corporate clients without triggering the lobbyist label.

Thus, anybody who is a good lawyer or who has one can figure out how to get around the lobbying registration requirements. And in D.C., good lawyers are not in short supply, which may be why, on the surface, it seems that lobbyists are. 

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