WASHINGTON A decadelong boom for corporate lobbyists in Washington is showing signs of quieting down, just as tougher congressional rules threaten to muffle the multibillion-dollar industry even more this year.
The new rules mandate more detailed disclosure of lobbying activities, industry oversight by the Justice Department and penalties of up to $200,000 for violations. They will force corporations and trade groups to provide more precise spending records and to take a harder look at who's lobbying for them.
Reports for spending in the second half of 2007 are due by Feb. 15. But under the new rules, which take effect Jan. 1, lobbyists and companies must now file quarterly reports.
The lobbying reforms come as corporate spending habits appear to be shifting. Since the late 1990s, total expenditures grew by about 80 percent and, in some years, at an annual clip of 12 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks such expenses.
K Street's river of cash hit record levels in 2006, as its two main tributaries, corporations and trade associations, helped bring the high-water mark to a record $2.63 billion in reported spending. Corporations and trade groups accounted for roughly 70 percent of that. Unions, professional associations and other organizations comprised the remaining 30 percent.
But in the first six months of 2007, spending based on disclosure reports filed with Congress reached $1.34 billion, only 2.3 percent higher than the same period last year.
A slower pace, to be sure, but still an impressive amount of influence, coming in from myriad sources, to monitor. The new rules are meant to do just that.
"The increased precision in the reporting requirements may reduce the overall amount that is reported because currently people are overreporting lobbying income and expenses," said attorney Craig Engle, a registered lobbyist with Arent Fox LLP.
He expects a smaller community of lobbyists with a slightly slower spending rate.
That prediction isn't shared across the industry. Several experts and lobbyists said that no one really knows what impact, if any, the rules will have on spending. Some experts said lobbyists might expand their repertoire to activities they aren't required to disclose, such as "grassroots" campaigns and advertising.
As lobbyist activity largely follows congressional priorities, annual spending predictions can be difficult. But experts say several factors, such as market saturation, can't be ignored as potential sands in the wheel.
Much of the past decade's explosion can be traced to a need for better representation, said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political science professor and expert on interest groups. Now that most trade groups and corporations are well-represented, he said, Washington may just be in glut territory.
Former Clinton administration official Jack Quinn, who co-founded one of Washington's most influential lobbying outfits Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC, said it stands to reason "almost arithmetically" the industry is reaching a limit.
"But, look, there's a lot of business in the field," he said. "There's a lot to be done."
There are nearly 36,000 registered lobbyists, more than double the number in 2000, according to the Senate public records office's most recent estimate. Some experts say that number is inflated by duplications and outdated registrations.
The new lobbying rules an outgrowth of corruption scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several U.S. lawmakers are designed to enhance transparency, not curb lobbying. They took effect Jan. 1.
James Thurber, an American University professor who teaches government, calculated that about 84,000 people work in the business including lobbyists, their staff, pollsters and others which, he contends, is the third-largest Washington industry behind government and tourism.
Thurber, who has testified several times before Congress for reforms, said there still isn't enough transparency in the system.
Wielding influence through grassroots campaigns, building coalitions, advertisements, conferences, surveys and white papers, thousands are not counted as lobbyists. That's an oversight, he says, the new rules fail to address. Some might even finagle an invite from a lawmaker to a meeting on the Hill to avoid having to register as a lobbyist, he said.
"They're going to be more and more creative about this," Thurber said.
Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, a public-interest group, said industries' lobbying dominance comes at the expense of the public.
"Everyone certainly has a right to lobby, but special interest lobbying must be balanced by having the public's interest represented on the Hill," Boyle said.