July 25, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Street Talk: Unregistered Lobbyists Keep Business Humming

K Street business has hit the skids.

At least, that’s the takeaway from the total lobbying tab for 2011 and 2012. In both years, revenue reported under the Lobbying Disclosure Act declined. So did the number of federal registered lobbyists.

The prevailing theories are that the slowdown is a function of the legislative logjam on Capitol Hill and a reflection of the sluggish national economy.

But what if there’s something more going on?

The tepid recovery and a dysfunctional Congress do bear blame, but a third, much overlooked factor exists: A lot of the work influencing government takes place in the shadows, outside of the view of public disclosures such as the LDA. And with a president who has further stigmatized registered lobbyists, K Streeters and some of their clients have made a practice of keeping their work just under the limits of the lobby laws.

In some cases, lobbyists have remained on the job, even with the same firms, but have deregistered, keeping their clients and their work secret. One prominent example is Steve Ricchetti, who stayed with his Ricchetti Inc., although no longer as a registered lobbyist, before joining the Obama administration last year. Lobbyists, of course, can’t work for the executive branch — President Barack Obama banned them — unless granted a waiver.

“I have looked at this very carefully over the years and thought about it a lot,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “I have come to the conclusion that the deregistrations that are going on, because people find out that they don’t really need to register or they’re trying to do a little bit of shadow advocacy  . . .  is the most important factor.”

More than the economy, more than the partisan gridlock on the Hill, Thurber asserted, it’s the lack of enforcement of lobbying laws and the resulting move to keep more lobbying work out of public view that is depressing the LDA tallies. K Street players don’t trigger the lobby law until they make more than one contact with government officials and spend at least 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities for compensation.

“The economy, in my opinion, doesn’t affect it that much — yes, companies are cutting back here and there, but they still have issues on the Hill,” he said. Not to mention that even when there’s an impasse, Congress still debates issues, and some clients actually want an impasse and lobby for the status quo.

Paul Miller, a past president of the American League of Lobbyists who runs Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, noted that his firm put off hiring another professional because of the lagging business environment. But Miller, a proponent of closing what he dubs the 20 percent loophole in the LDA, says there’s no question the unregistered players make a difference.

Miller wants the law to rope in “unlobbyists” such as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of DLA Piper, as well as the thousands of professional grass-roots lobbyists and policy PR wonks who sit at the same strategy sessions as registered lobbyists but don’t file their billables under the LDA. He noted that he agrees with an exception for folks who fly in from across the country for annual lobby days.

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