Lobbyists take a crack at government's toughest watchdog agency.
The Government Accountability Office has a level of credibility that is tough to match in Washington. Churning out a steady stream of informed reviews and recommendations on government operations, the watchdog agency is invaluable to lawmakers who seek nonpartisan, unbiased background for writing legislation and policy.
But members of Congress aren't the only devotees of GAO. Because its critiques form the foundation for many laws passed in Washington, the agency has attracted an unexpected band of followers-lobbyists.
The long-recognized practice of educating and influencing decision-makers in Congress on behalf of special interest groups has made its way to the executive branch. And a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington, put GAO in the top 50 among 200 government organizations lobbied since 1998.
Agencies such as the Defense and Commerce departments have been lobbied thousands of times since reporting requirements began in the mid-1990s, the study found. Twenty-one agencies were lobbied by more than 1,000 organizations from 1998 to mid-2004, according to the center's LobbyWatch database, compiled from public records filed with the Senate.
Ranked at No. 43, GAO has been approached by more than 290 groups, which is surprising, the report noted, given its reputation and congressional mandate for independence and impartiality. Many of GAO's solicitors were hospital and nursing home organizations, which accounted for almost 50. But in recent years, computer technology and telecommunication companies also have lobbied the agency.
It's impossible to pinpoint all the reasons why organizations lobby GAO, says George Stalcup, the agency's strategic issues director. Sometimes, though, the motives are obvious. In 2004, for example, the American Nurses Association lobbied GAO along with the Health and Human Services and Labor departments to talk to officials about the Recruitment and Diversity in Nursing Act, designed to boost numbers of minority nursing students.
Companies often contact the agency about legal matters because GAO handles contract bid protests, Stalcup says. Many law firms classify their contact as lobbying when they file bid protests, but that doesn't mean such organizations affect the agency's investigations, he says. "Anybody in any role is free to give GAO a call, and anybody is free to register themselves as a lobbyist. . . . None of that is ever going to influence [us]," Stalcup says.
Still, Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, another Washington-based watchdog group, is not surprised that companies pay lobbyists to contact GAO. Noble says he suspects that the majority of lobbying work by industry and nonprofit groups never is listed as such in public records, even though it could affect the agency's reports to Congress.
"It shows the broad influence and money spent by various interests," he says. "It's all about influencing public policy at the root. . . . Those with greater access to you will generally have more influence."