Peter Dykstra

"I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president." -- Barack Obama, during the campaign in June, 2008

Of all the daunting tasks our new president faces -- righting the economy, dealing with the Middle East, getting America out of the international dog house, re-casting our energy, environment, and global warming future -- this promise was made on one of the toughest.

Increasingly over the last few decades, Washington lobbyists don’t just set the agenda, they help drive the regional economy. For a new administration to succeed in reining in their influence would be like shutting down the auto industry in Detroit (which, by the way, is near the top of the president’s list of things not to let happen).   Lobbying is so big, and so ingrained here, that lobbyists have their own lobby group, the 30 year-old American League of Lobbyists.

The Center for Responsive Politics’s OpenSecrets website puts the number of Washington lobbyists at 15,000. CRP pegged lobbying expenditures at $2.8 billion in 2007, the last full year when numbers are available. They project the 2008 numbers to come in at about $3.2 billion.

Their numbers are based on a very narrow definition of lobbying, based on a Clinton-era law that sought to create more accountability for lobbyists. The U.S. Senate’s Office of Public Records lists 35,000 registered lobbyists as of late 2008 -- double the number from ten years earlier. Even if you take the probably-low number of $3.2 billion in lobbying expenditures, that averages out to just short of $6 million per year spent on lobbying each and every member of the House and Senate. That in turn works out to more than $16,000 a day, every day, for every senator and every congressman.

While healthcare, infrastructure, and economic recovery will all be headliners on the lobbying agenda, energy and environment loom large, too. Bear in mind that there are two kinds of lobbying on clean energy and environment: for and against. The oil and gas industry, according to CRP, spent $94.5 million on lobbying last year, and spilled an additional $31.1 million into the 2008 election cycle. Compare that last number to the combined election spending by environmental groups and alternative energy generators: $4.4 million.

The opposite numbers for the energy and transportation giants will still be outspent, but Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics thinks the playing field will be more level. “The side that’s more ideologically in tune with the administration and congress can more easily express their point of view and will feel less that they’re financially outgunned,” he said. “They may get meetings without having to hire someone to get the meetings. But you may see the traditional energy players spending even more since they may have to work harder to get policymakers to come around.”

It’ll be interesting to see how it breaks down: The nuclear industry, which has for two decades leveraged global warming as a marketing tool for its carbon-free atom splitting, would love to see a carbon tax imposed on its rivals in the fossil fuel industry. The auto industry, which pleaded poverty in its most lucrative days to stave off safety and fuel efficiency improvements, can really plead poverty now. The coal industry can’t swallow just about any solution to global warming, save for the “clean coal” touted in their ad campaigns. (And which their opponents say is a myth. More on this, and the other eco-ad wars, in my “Media Mayhem” column on Monday).

But environmental and alternative energy advocates have two things on their side that they haven’t had in years -- a seat at the table with the administration, and a sense of urgency from three different directions: An energy infrastructure badly in need of a remake, a climate in crisis, and an economic mess that energy and environmental investments could help clean up.

Obama arrived in Washington with high hopes, broad public support, a strong majority in the House and a nearly-filibuster-proof 59 seats in the Senate. The change that clearly has come to Washington may or may not reach Lobbyland. On Wednesday, Obama took a major step in fulfilling the campaign pledge at the top of this story by signing an Executive Order to clamp serious restrictions on the “revolving door” through which lobbyists enter and leave positions in the federal government. The revamped White House website also lays out the president’s full Energy and Environment agenda.

A Dec. 2007 Gallup poll offered a menu of 21 professions and asked respondents to grade them on trustworthiness. Nurses came out on top. Lobbyists finished last, behind car mechanics, journalists, lawyers, politicians, admen, and even car salesmen. We’ll see how they fare in a Washington that’s itching for change.


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

Green States: The kids in the hall
Green States MNN columnist Peter Dykstra asks whether environmental lobbying will be changed along with other government lobbying through Obama ethics reform.