More governments look to lobbyists
California Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson lives in St. Helena and calls city officials there by their first names. The Napa Valley town also is home to a vineyard owned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her husband.
Yet the town spent about $150,000 during the first six months of this year on a Washington lobbyist, more than Philadelphia or St. Louis.
St. Helena is just one of the cities, counties and states that have ramped up spending on lobbying as they look more to Washington for help in easing budget problems and getting a leg up on the competition in the scramble for federal funds.
Some, however, think it’s a waste of money.
“I would like to believe that I am their lobbyist,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) said about his constituents in and around Kansas City, where he used to be mayor.
Said Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Republican from Simi Valley, which does not employ a Washington lobbyist: “They’ve got the best one they can possibly get -- and they don’t have to pay for it. I’m here to serve.”
Still, local and state governments -- from Hoonah, Alaska (population 850), to Chicago (more than 2.8 million residents) -- spent more than $41 million through June of this year on lobbying firms. That is more than they spent in all of 2001, according to the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.
Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad), a former Imperial Beach mayor and onetime lobbyist, compared the proliferation of government-employed lobbyists to an arms race.
“When you look at all this money that’s being thrown around, that’s got to be a huge incentive to invest in somebody to make sure that you try to get somewhere close to your fair share.”
Los Angeles County, which employs two full-time lobbyists in the capital and contracts with six private firms, typically spends about $1.5 million annually, though it is on pace to spend less than that in 2009.
“As the largest county in the nation, it is important that we have a strong and highly visible presence,” said Ryan Alsop, assistant chief executive for intergovernmental and external affairs. “We have the largest congressional delegation in D.C., and with that comes the need to maintain a continuous and ongoing engagement regarding priority legislative and administrative issues.”
The city of Los Angeles, which employs three full-time lobbyists, contracts with three firms, including one founded by former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt.
California’s governor operates a Washington office, and the state Senate contracts with a lobbying firm.
Marcia Howard, director of the Federal Funds Information for States, said that local and state officials may be stepping up their efforts to compete for federal grants because “times are tough.” And some say the cost of a lobbyist is a small investment that can pay big dividends.
“Having a lobbyist gives a community an edge when there are so many different sources of federal funding in play,” said W. Roger Gwinn, a D.C. lobbyist whose firm gained 15 local governments as clients this year, on top of more than 200 it already represented.
“There is only so much attention to an individual community’s problems that a congressional office can give, in light of the enormity of the workload and the limited number of staff resources available,” said Gwinn, president of the Ferguson Group.
The $40,000 that Hoonah pays its Washington lobbyist is well worth it, said city administrator David Richards, citing $3 million in federal funds for an economic development project that its lobbyist helped bring to the community.
In St. Helena, Mayor Del Britton said that although Thompson has looked out for the city, “there is no way any one man can be totally familiar with all aspects of the numerous projects that fall within his district.” The lobbyist, he said, “gave us an avenue to the staff members of the different agencies.”
Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from Santa Clarita, where he was once mayor, said that when the city first hired a Washington lobbyist, “I was a little offended.” But, he said, lobbyists can be helpful. “It’s kind of a team effort. I’m certainly not omnipotent.”
Though McKeon is an “enthusiastic and highly effective advocate” for his hometown, Santa Clarita City Manager Ken Pulskamp said, “in the highly partisan Washington environment, the city’s chances for success with its initiatives is enhanced through the retention of professional advocates who have strong daily working relationships with congressional members and staff in both houses of Congress and on both sides of the aisle.”
The National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors and National Assn. of Counties have staffs in Washington to look out for local interests. But officials from cities that employ their own lobbying firms say that is not enough.
“The best lobbyist for a legislator is another legislator -- that is the mayor talking to a congressman -- but that also has costs associated with it,” said City Manager Michael Flad of Burbank, which recently hired a D.C. lobbyist.
“The public perception of our council members making trips to Sacramento and Washington has also been called into question. . . . I think any way you slice it, influencing legislation and making sure that your residents receive what you feel is in their best interest takes time and money. My experience has been that the more time and money you invest in the process, the more likely you are to influence it.”