The number of registered lobbyists in Washington D.C. is at its lowest point since 2008 and special interest spending on lobbying has fallen commensurately, but the trend may not actually reflect a decrease in the political influence enjoyed by special interests.
Lobbyists, and those who study them, argue that the decrease in lobbying activity in the first half of 2017 is the result of a gridlocked legislative environment and increasingly stringent lobbyist registration rules.
There were 9,791 registered lobbyists at the end of June, the lowest number at any point since 2008, and special interest spending on lobbying reached its lowest point in the last decade in the second quarter of 2017, according to a Boston Globe review of the last decade of lobbying data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Trump administration’s legislative agenda has been marred by a failure to achieve a bipartisan coalition on major legislative priorities. The failure of GOP leadership to whip the necessary votes required for Obamacare repeal in early July likely serves as a signal to special interests that the legislative arena will remain resistant to major breakthroughs for the foreseeable future.
“There’s nothing happening,” Center for Competitive Politics President David Keating told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The fact that nothing is really happening, no legislation is really going anywhere, which means that no one feels the need to ramp up. The biggest bill that came down the pike was the health care bill and nothing came of it.”
The decrease in the number of registered lobbyists is also linked to increasingly stringent regulations around lobbyist registration instituted by former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
Obama enacted regulations which prohibit former federal officials from lobbying their particular agency for an extended period of time after leaving their post. Trump vowed to further crack down on the revolving door between government and lobbying but he instituted a similar, if slightly broader prohibition, which critics argue didn’t drastically reduce special interest influence because the regulation allows for waivers to be issued in a number of circumstances.
While these rule changes are clearly impacting the number of registered lobbyists, they are not necessarily cutting down on lobbying activities as the Trump administration has displayed a willingness to provide waivers, and lobbyists take advantage of loopholes in the rules to avoid registering.
“At the beginning, there may have been a reaction from ‘drain the swamp.’ If you hear that and you’re a lobbyist who doesn’t have to register, or you can easily adjust things so you don’t have to register, then you’re not an alligator in the swamp anymore,” Larry Noble, the Campaign Legal Center’s general counsel, told the Boston Globe.
“As it became apparent that he really wasn’t going to change the rules, the incentive to do that is less and less,” he added. “He’s given a lot of waivers. He doesn’t even talk about ‘drain the swamp’ anymore.”
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