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As the White House and Congress continue to wrangle over a deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff" and its billions in automatic spending cuts and tax increases, we wanted to take a look at who is spending big to influence the debate behind the scenes.
We turned to Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money and its effect on public policy, for help in sorting out the players. Bryner also manages the center's data on lobbying and its "revolving door" database, which keeps tabs on the musical chairs played by those in politics and the lucrative private sector.
Here's the Q and A:
NPR: Tracking lobbying money, obviously, is tantamount to tracking the stakes of any given issue for a particular company or individual. From what you discern from your data, what or who has invested the most in assuring a favorable outcome, and why?
Bryner: Unfortunately, it is very challenging to tell from the data how much effort any given group or interest is putting into any specific issue. Groups only need to disclose the total amount of money they spend in a quarter and the issues they lobby on — not how much money they spend on any one issue. So, if Raytheon or GE spends $100,000 in a given quarter on lobbying and lists "sequestration" as one of its issues, it is impossible to tell how important that issue was to the company compared to the others listed.
That being said, some groups provide more information. People for the American Way, for example, mentioned sequestration in its lobbying reports dozens of time this year, far more than any other group. So, you get that the group is very interested in budget issues.
You also can look for trends. During the health care reform debates, lobbying by the health care industry ramped up, not surprisingly. Lobbying by the computer industry was up earlier this year when bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act were being debated, so it's not illogical to draw some inferences there. Since overall lobbying is down this year, including this most recent quarter — which measures up until late September — it is hard to say at this point how much attention is being paid to these fiscal cliff issues by lobbying clients.
NPR: The center also puts together data that show what sector of the economy is most heavily invested in an issue. Is there a particular sector that is lobbying the fiscal cliff issue more heavily than others, and why?
Bryner: Up through September, only around 50 groups had mentioned the phrase "fiscal cliff." Since that's a pretty small number of groups, it's hard to point to a standout sector, but the theme of the clients, it seems to me, is that many of them have both a fiscal and an ideological stake in the outcome. There aren't many defense contractors interested in "fiscal cliff" issues, but instead you see trade associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lobbying here. It seems as though fiscal cliff issues started to enter the spotlight more after the election, so the data won't tell us much until January, when reports about fourth-quarter lobbying come in.
More interesting is the lobbying on sequestration [the mandated across-the-board budget cuts]. Over 400 groups and corporations lobbied on sequestration, and they really run the gamut of industries. Basically, industries where the federal government either contributes to their budgets or is a major customer tend to have become most involved. The "standouts" — in terms of numbers — are really the defense sector, higher education, medical associations and U.S. cities. More than half of the cities that have lobbied on this issue are in California.
NPR: When you look at the money spent on lobbying members of Congress on the fiscal cliff, how does the amount compare with other issues? The last debt ceiling debate? And, for a real contrast, the vote on Obama's health care legislation?
Bryner: Again, it is impossible to link money spent on lobbying activities with any specific issue the client is interested in, assuming the client has a list of at least several issues. That being said, history does provide some context. The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, as did the Wall Street Reform Act, and we saw unprecedented levels of lobbying activity in both 2009 and 2010. These major overhaul bills attracted a lot of attention because nearly everyone has a stake — from the general public to small business owners to major banks. Sequestration is similar, but the data don't seem to indicate that we'll see anywhere near the level of lobbying that took place in 2009 and 2010.
NPR: Given the automatic defense spending cuts that will come if Congress fails to reach a deal and avoid the fiscal cliff, we'd expect to see big defense contractors in the mix. And we'd expect to see health providers, also facing automatic cuts, in the money game. But are there any groups in the lobbying mix that surprised you?
Bryner: In some ways, looking at the list is a useful tool in learning which industries are subsidized and funded by the U.S. government. I was surprised less by the groups lobbying than I was by the groups not lobbying — agriculture, for example, has only four clients on the list. There's only one major oil company on the list — Exxon Mobil. Major banks seem to have stayed quiet on the topic for now. Really, the list reads a lot like a primer on federalism — you have local electric utilities, cities, colleges, hospital associations. They aren't the biggest spenders — trade associations, defense contractors and large unions top that list — but these smaller, regional entities are certainly interested in the discussion.