Lobbying Governments Spending Tax Dollars to Influence Elected Officials
Both Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) cited the funding for a new truck safety lane among their top achievements in the first session of the 105th Congress, the Rocky Mountain News reported in January.
But there's more to this story than the familiar tale of congressmen bringing home the bacon. A Washington lobbying firm, Capital Partnerships Inc., hired by Colorado's Douglas County, did a lot of the work - and earned a healthy profit.
Hefley worked closely with Colorado officials, says the congressman's spokeswoman Leigh LaMora. "But had it not been for Capital Partnerships, we may not have received as much money for the project just because there are so many issues we have to cover here on transportation," LaMora said. "On behalf of Douglas County, they did a terrific job."
County spokeswoman Kristin French says the $85,000 that taxpayers paid Capital Partnerships Inc. in 1997 was well spent. Not only was the firm instrumental in securing Hefley's support, but it knew how to work the rest of Congress. The County was so pleased with Capital Partnership's work that it is paying the firm a $5,000-a-month retainer while the comprehensive highway bill nicknamed ISTEA winds its way through Congress.
"One vote is not enough to get the work done in Washington, D.C.," says French. "It took a great amount of work to bring attention to the Appropriations Committee - they're faced with thousands of projects."
Douglas County is not unique. Dozens of cities, counties and other local governments - including Albuquerque, Houston, Seattle, Austin, St Louis, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans - are spending taxpayers' dollars on Washington lobbyists to promote their interests before Congress and federal agencies.
In Colorado alone, more than a dozen cities, counties and public agencies spent $1.2 million on Washington representation in 1997, based on lobby disclosure records and interviews with officials. City records show that Denver spent $939,000 to hire eight firms in 1997, including Arter & Hadden; Capital Partnerships Inc.; Friedlob Sanderson; Morrison & Foerster; Price Howlett; Patton Boggs; and Reid and Priest. Most were hired to work on tasks related to the city's new international airport, such as lobbying to overturn a ban on a sixth runway.
"It's kind of a crazy world when one local government has to pay somebody for another government entity to listen to it," says Aurora, Colo. City Council member John Paroske, who opposed hiring the lobbyists. "It seems like the whole system is out of kilter." Aurora has spent $309,322 since 1994 for the services of the Jefferson Group.
Some lobbying firms gain a reputation for their government practices. Besides Aurora, Jefferson Group clients include Orlando, Fla. Cassidy & Associates, which has a long roster of universities and hospitals as clients, also works for Phoenix, the Hawaii governor's office, South Pasadena, and San Francisco.
For the most part, the lobbying firms work to tease money out of Congress and federal agencies for local projects - highways, airports, research grants and federal offices - and to bring jobs to particular cities or counties. These are the pet projects that stud annual appropriations bills and such complex bills as ISTEA. They're more commonly known as "pork."
In the past, securing federal goodies and taking care of the home district was a representative's prime responsibility. But many local governments now want professional help.
"It's probably directly proportional to the degree of the decline of the [federal] budget," says Donald Haider, professor of management at the J.L. Kellogg School at Northwestern University and author of a book on local government lobbying. "Grants and aid [to local governments] have declined as a percent of the budget since the late seventies. As the budget decreases, the more claimants rush in."
Lobbyists for local governments tend to be even more circumspect than corporate lobbyists.
"They're the most secretive bunch of people I've ever run across," says Ronald Shaiko, associate professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C. and director of the school's Lobbying Institute. "When they come to my class, they don't want C-Span, no journalists ... you never see their name on the letterhead. They cash their checks and that's their reward - making Congress look good, making the mayor look good."
The secrecy seems to make sense, since some of the tools of Washington's lobbying trade raise sensitive issues when taxpayer dollars are involved. For example, city and county officials can't use public funds to make campaign contributions to a powerful committee chairman. But they can hire Washington lobbyists who contribute to the chairman.
The $18,700 that Kenneth Butler, a lobbyist at Capital Partnerships Inc. contributed to federal candidates and political action committees between 1995 and 1997 included $6,000 to House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who has the biggest say over which highway projects are funded. (Records show that Capital Partnerships also hired Ann Eppard Associates in 1997. Ann Eppard worked as Shuster's top aide for more than 24 years, and remains his chief campaign fund-raiser. She was indicted last month on charges of illegally taking $230,000 while serving on Shuster's staff to influence a Boston tunnel project. She also was charged with embezzling $27,500 from Shuster's campaign.)
Butler divided most of his other contributions to House and Senate Transportation and Appropriations Committee members. And $1,000 went to Hefley himself, who championed the I-25 expansion in Douglas County.
"It doesn't make any difference as far as Congressman Hefley is concerned," says LaMora. "[Contributions] would have no impact on any decision on any project."
Overall, lobbying firms hired by Colorado local governments distributed nearly $2 million to federal campaigns and parties between 1995 and 1997. But the sensitive issue of spending tax dollars to lobby elected officials has led some cities to avoid hiring D.C. lobbyists.
Idaho's capital city, Boise, occasionally has hired lobbying firms for specific tasks, but does not maintain ongoing contracts with any firms.
"We rely on the lobbying ability of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and, frankly on personal relationships [with our congressional delegation]," says Suzanne Burton, the city's public information officer. "There's never been the feeling that it's worth the money ... Using tax funds [that way] is sometimes hard to explain to the public."
Like many state governments, several large cities - including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston - have decided it makes more sense to operate their own offices in the nation's capital staffed by city employees.
"We have only one interest - the city of Chicago," says Dave Yudin, director of the city's five-person D.C. office. "There is no juggling of different interests, no calculation of whether there's a conflict. [Congressional offices know] that I'm the mayor's representative."
Jim Seeley, director of Los Angeles' six-person Washington lobbying office, says his status as a city employee provides a ready excuse not to contribute when members of Congress ask.
"I had to tell one congressman," says Seeley. "This member's staff kept bugging me ... I had to say, do you understand, I can't contribute."
Los Angeles is such an important city, Seeley says, that members of Congress have to pay attention to him - whether he makes campaign contributions or not.
Nancy Watzman is a freelance writer in Denver