When governments lobby governments

During the current economic downturn, governors across the nation such as Arnold Schwarzenegger of California have been lining up to lobby the federal government for bailout money. For the public, and taxpayers in particular, this activity raises serious but seldom examined questions.

If private citizens undertook such activity, there are a host of fairly strict regulations concerning registering and reporting. The standards prove starkly different, however, when government lobbies government, as a new study shows. State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers notes that only six states require government agencies to register when lobbying, and only 31 states include the legislative branch in lobbying registration requirements.

Thirteen states exempt the governor’s office and the executive branch from lobbying registration.

Taxpayer-funded lobbying is big business, a division of government spending and the largest single category of lobbying in some states. The practice differs from private-sector lobbying in several ways.

Lobbyists in the private sector pay for their lobbying activity out of their own pocket, and their efforts are disciplined by competition. For example, commodity producers often lobby for subsidies and protection while the users of the commodities push for opposite. Private-sector firms have limited resources with which to lobby and they have to show results for their efforts. On the other side, things are different.

When government agencies lobby government, taxpayers foot the bill. Those resources are not subject to the same limitations as in the private sector.

Very little if any competition exists on the government side, where disclosure is also weak.

The recent report, State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers, surveys the quality of lobbying information. The average score for states was 22 out of the 37 disclosure criteria, or 59.3 percent. Eleven states received scores below 50 percent.

That means most states lack sufficient lobbying disclosure laws to create and maintain meaningful information on lobbying activities.

To enlighten public policy, the information disclosed must be easily accessible. The study examined 22 different criteria in each state to assess the quality, timeliness, and breadth of accessibility to lobbying information. The average score was 9.6 out of a possible 22 criteria, or 43.6 percent. Thirty-two states actually failed to achieve a score in excess of 50 percent.

These measurements indicate a real need for improvement in disclosure and accessibility across the states. For example, 22 states failed to achieve a combined score for their disclosure laws and accessibility in excess of 50 percent and the average score was a disappointing 51.5 percent.

When it comes to government-to-government lobbying, we’re not talking about small amounts of money, as California confirms. Direct government-to-government lobbying constituted the single largest category of state-level lobbying. Specifically, it represented $92.6 million of the $552.6 million California spent on lobbying, or 16.8 percent.

If that amount is expanded to include other taxpayer-funded organizations that are not directly government, the number increases to almost one-in-four-dollars of lobbying. Perhaps most telling, the level of taxpayer-funded lobbying at the state level, using California as a case study, is two-and-a-half times the magnitude of similar lobbying at the federal level.

While governors lobby the federal government, taxpayers in 50 states are staring down the barrel of April 15. Most do not intend their hard-earned money to fund lobbying activities on the part of government. All citizens have a right to expect that government-to-government lobbying will be subject to the same level of scrutiny and reporting as lobbying by the private sector. All states should make improvements in disclosure, accessibility and equal treatment.

Clemens is the director of research at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and co-author of the recently released report State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers. Billingsley is the editorial director at the institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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