President Barack Obama ordered federal officials to disclose their contacts with lobbyists trying to influence how the government doles out money to jump-start the economy. Yet few such communications have been reported even though lobbyists say they are busier than ever with the multibillion-dollar stimulus.
Since the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in February, federal agencies have reported 197 contacts with lobbyists about stimulus grants.
In August, the entire government reported only eight such lobbying contacts. The Pentagon, which controls about $7.4 billion in stimulus spending, reported only a single lobbying contact so far this year. The Homeland Security Department, with at least $3 billion to spend, reported none.
Yet the paucity of reporting masks activities by lobbyists and clients eager to obtain stimulus money for their projects. Lobbyists have separately reported work related to stimulus projects and in many cases have operated in new ways to skirt restrictions on their efforts to influence stimulus spending.
A spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, Tom Gavin, said agencies are told regularly to disclose contacts with lobbyists on their Web sites.
"It’s an ongoing process," Gavin said. "This is the first time ever that these kinds of disclosures are being made."
The lobbying rules apply to about $88 billion worth of competitive grants and loans, the White House said. Much of the $787 billion stimulus package is for spending on tax cuts, Medicaid or grants to states that wouldn’t be subject to lobbying at the federal level.
When disclosures are made, the reports vary widely.
The Education Department described 19 encounters, including Secretary Arne Duncan’s meetings with the NAACP and other groups, some with detailed descriptions of the discussions. Energy Department reports include barely legible scrawls as well as 159 pages of public comments on a transmission infrastructure program.
The departments of Homeland Security, State and Veterans Affairs and smaller agencies such as the Smithsonian Institution have made no such reports. The Pentagon confirmed there has only been one lobbying report filed, describing a query by a lobbyist for a real estate company about the military homeowners assistance program.
"All of our employees are very aware of the Recovery Act requirements on disclosure," said Cmdr. Darryn James.
New White House rules issued late this summer were aimed at eliminating a loophole: Lobbyists had been sending their clients to do the pitching below the radar of public disclosure.
U.S. officials have to disclose only their contacts with lobbyists, not others interested in the stimulus money like corporate executives or trade groups. But new rules bar conversations with both lobbyists and others once an application for money is submitted.
That means before an application for money is in the pipeline, people who are not registered lobbyists can still make their pitches without those meetings being publicly disclosed by the government officials. Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, says that does not promote the transparency Obama promised because registered lobbyists are still the only ones whose contacts are disclosed.
"At least if you’re having a meeting with a lobbyist it’s written down," Wenhold said. "There’s $787 billion out there and you’re telling me no one is lobbying for it? It’s a whole lot of spin."
Lobbyists initially were restricted to talking only about general policy matters and shut out of meetings on specific projects. So, they prepared their clients to meet with government workers.
"We’ve walked them to the meeting and back," said lobbyist Howard Marlowe, describing a mayor client he briefed and escorted to a government meeting.
In some cases, lobbyists in separate disclosure reports required by Congress indicated work related to agency’s stimulus grants — work that wasn’t reflected in the agency reports. Lobbyists said some of those reports represented work they did on behalf of clients that fell short of actually contacting federal agencies.
In one case, a lobbyist for Delphi Corp., a supplier of heating and cooling systems, attended a technical meeting with thermal experts from the company and technical staff at the Energy Department to talk up Delphi’s new technologies. She was told that as a lobbyist she could only listen while her colleagues talked, Delphi’s government relations director John Anderson said.