So you think you know the power of lobbyists…

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by Myles Spicer | Well, so did I. But I was wrong, and once I got into the subject, I realized how uneducated I was about their power…their influence…their resources…their money! And the whole subject was an eye opener to me. And I consider myself pretty well informed and attuned to what is going on in the political arena.

Graduate U of Minn 1954. Flying officer USAF 1954-57 honorably discharged from reserve with rank of Capt. Owner several ad agencies in the Twin Cities and San Diego for over 45 years. Won several national creative awards in my career; and was a published author. Active politically entire adult life, and civil rights activist since age of 21. 76 years old…and an unrepentant liberal!

I got moved up the learning curve in a curious way, and probably never would have been further informed about lobbying had I not challenged Minnesota2020 (a valuable liberal think tank) to run an article on lobbying, smugly knowing their founder, Matt Entenza, had been fined for failing to report a lobbyists campaign contribution. To my surprise, John Van Hecke, their Executive Director, said: “sure write one”! Well, so much for being a smart ass.

However, as with many things in life, my lemon became lemonade, because I learned much more about the power of lobbying than I ever thought possible. And why was I so uninformed? Mostly because the whole subject is pretty dry; much information is contained in dull state or federal documents; and so much of it goes on “behind the curtain”. So, here are some of the dull – but important details.

If you believe, as I did, that lobbying in Minnesota was perhaps a few hundred “suits” spending a couple hundred thousand buck wining, dining and cajoling their buddies at the capital, you are wrong. The Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Act, and its related report tell a far different story. And that story is stunning.

To begin with, there were 1486 registered lobbyists in 2008 in the State of Minnesota. Given that there are 201 legislators, they seem to be “outnumbered” by a factor of 7 to 1. Or stated another way, each legislator must be bombarded by massive attempts at influence. The registered lobbyists represent about 1300 entities or special interests, while the 201 legislators represent the general welfare of about 5 million Minnesotans.

However, even more stunning is this fact. In 2008, lobbyists and their principals spent $61,603,289 on lobbying activities (similar amounts were spent in 2007 as well). That figure includes the total various expenditures of individual lobbyists and the special interests they represent. Again, given that there are only 201 legislators (House and Senate) – that is an amazing, astounding, incredible $300,000 per legislator to influence public policy. Indeed, the reports disclosed that 90% of lobbying disbursements were made for the purpose of influencing legislative action, 8% of disbursements were made to influence administrative action, and 2% were made to influence the official actions of metropolitan governmental units. Moreover, despite the astounding amount spent on lobbying activities, and while “gifts” to legislators are prohibited, campaign contributions to a campaign for local office, subject to Minnesota Statutes, chapter 211B, are not a “gift” within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 10A.071.

So, who were these lobbyists, and who did they represent. Well, the 3 biggest categories will not surprise you: business, health, and insurance (probably health and insurance have some replication). In fact, the biggest lobbying group was the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce (about $2 million), and undoubtedly they were highly interested in affecting tax policy. If so, their investment paid good dividends, most certainly with our Governor. As for health, well, you simply have to see what is going on at the national level (more about that later), to understand their motives. Among other notable special interests were casinos, regulated industries such as power companies, and groups representing Minnesota cities (with Pawlenty’s unallotment to the cities, they sure did not get their money’s worth).

Translating lobbying activities in Minnesota to national health care issues, in 2006 (the last fully reported year) lobby groups in Washington spent $2.85 Billion on lobbying Congress through 15,285 registered lobbyists in the Capital! Amortize that over the 535 legislators in our national House and Senate. And these expenditures do not include the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by PACs and the so-called 527 Groups, who influence public policy outside the lobbying laws. But, back to the health care debate, the private insurers have obviously put on a full court press on this issue, despite the fact that they have had decades to “fix” the flaws in our health care system. They spent almost $500 million in 2008 for lobbying activities, and are on a pace to outdo that this year. Though public pressure is strongly (over 70%) on the side of a public health care option, why is there such strong resistance to something the public clearly wants? Lobbying, pure and simple; and they have armed their Congressional supporters with powerful public relations backup…fictional fear tactics…and coordinated sound bites to keep the troops aligned. But even more insidious are the campaign contributions made to their allies and prospective allies alike. For example, Senator Max Baucus, a key player in the debate, received nearly $2,000,000 from the health and insurance industries from 2003 to 2008. Changing his direction, and those others similarly funded, is obviously a tough sell.

So, what is this really about? First, in the battle between the common good and special interests, clearly, the special interests have a big edge. But, mostly it is about things I uncovered about the power of lobbying: the incredible amounts of money spent to influence our public officials, well beyond anything I imagined…the vast number of lobbyists roaming the halls of our state and national Capitals…the policies that are crafted behind the curtain…the obfuscation and lack of transparency on the facts of lobbying (unless you want to read through a bunch of dull state and Federal reports)…the ignorance and lack of motivation by most of us in ferreting out these facts (including myself). In short, this was about educating myself about how potent and pervasive these lobby powers are…and now you know, too.