Congressional watchdog agency targeted by lobbyists

The congressional office charged with conducting independent investigations for federal lawmakers was lobbied by 292 groups over six years, according to a database compiled by a nonprofit watchdog group.

A large number of the groups that lobbied the Government Accountability Office were hospital and nursing home organizations, but in recent years the number of computer technology and telecommunication companies increased, according to the online database LobbyWatch.

The information was gathered by the Center for Public Integrity in a five-month project that took the thousands of forms filed by lobbyists at the Senate Office of Public Records and compiled them in a database.

Researcher Elizabeth Brown, who wrote the report, said her group does not take a position regarding the ethics of lobbyists contacting agencies such as GAO, but rather simply wanted to report that it happened.

Other agencies are lobbied much more often than GAO. The agency ranks 43rd among all government agencies lobbied, and 21 government organizations were lobbied more than 1,000 times from 1998 to mid-2004. But the fact that lobbyists attempt to influence GAO is somewhat surprising, given the agency's reputation for independence and impartiality, according to the center.

Individuals registered as lobbying GAO from 1998 through June 2004 totaled 1,536, including 155 that previously worked for Congress or executive branch agencies.

George Stalcup, GAO's strategic issues director, said there is no way to know exactly why lobbyists contacted the agency unless GAO contacted each lobbying firm, but he said that a number of lobbyists contact the agency on legal matters because the office handles agencies' bid protests.

In some cases, it's clear why lobbyists contacted GAO. For example, the American Nurses Association lobbied GAO along with both houses of Congress and the Health and Human Services and Labor departments during 2004 on the Recruitment and Diversity Act and fiscal 2004 appropriations bills.

Since lobbying firms are responsible for reporting their own activities, however, it is sometimes difficult to know exactly why a lobbying firm listed GAO among the organizations it contacted.

Stalcup said it is understandable that many law firms classify contacts with GAO as lobbying and that GAO will contact groups such as trade associations seeking data for their research. That doesn't mean such organizations affecting GAO's research, he said. "Anybody in any role is free to give GAO a call, and anybody is free to register themselves as a lobbyist …. People are free to call us up any time. None of that is ever going to influence [us]."

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog group, said he was not surprised that companies were paying lobbyists to contact GAO.

"It shows the broad influence and money spent by various interests," Noble said. "It's all about influencing public policy at the root …. The natural way of things is those with greater access to you will generally have more influence."

Other government oversight bodies have been minimally lobbied.

The Office of Government Ethics, the enforcer of conflict-of-interest rules for federal workers, is recorded as being lobbied four times since 1998. In the most recent activity, the Senior Executives Association pushed for a change in lobbying rules in 2004, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Another government oversight body, the Federal Election Commission, which enforces the Federal Election Campaign Act, was lobbied by 106 groups from 1998 through June 1994. Sixteen of those were nonprofits.

FEC spokesman Ian Stirton said that lobbyists are free to contact the FEC but they cannot do anything to change election laws. He said lobbyists are likely recording the FEC in their reports when they file public input on the agency's proposed rules.

The Office of Personnel Management also received attention. Since 1998, 117 groups reported contacting OPM. Insurance companies recorded the most lobbying, with 85 contacts, followed by public sector unions, including the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, which lobbied OPM 19 times.

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