We’re running out of synonyms for “decline.” For years, OpenSecrets Blog has reported essentially the same headline. Washington’s influence industry appears to be contracting, and the trend continued in 2015.Overall spending dipped just slightly last year, from $3.24 billion in 2014 to $3.20 billion, but the number became the latest data point in the long, slow slide in total outlays by clients lobbying the federal government, according to new data collected and analyzed by CRP.
The number of registered lobbyists continued dropping, as well, raising new questions about how many lobbyists are dropping below the reporting threshold, becoming part-time influencers and never returning to the federal government’s registry. Others may simply be leaving Washington for greener pastures.
It’s nearly impossible to tell for sure. But the number of lobbyists active in 2015 fell to 11,465, down from 12,945 in 2010.
Still, all the downward-trending graphs don’t mean K Street had a bad year, and reports of the influence industry’s death may have been greatly exaggerated. For some firms, things were just fine, if not outright booming: Akin Gump saw an increase of $3.7 million in billings over 2014, BGR Group grew its billings $2 million in the same period and big players like Covington & Burling, Cornerstone Government Affairs, Brownstein Hyatt, Greenberg Traurig, Venable andOgilvy all received $1 million more from clients in 2015 than they did in 2014.
New firm on the block Jackson Vaughn Public Strategies reported billings of $1.8 million in 2015 after taking in just $25,000 in the last quarter of 2014 — the firm’s first reporting period. Jackson Vaughn made its money last year representing anindustry under fire, with quick-cash and online payday loan companies their biggest clients. Government concerns about loans to members of the military by companies like these and the possible application of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s consumer protection measures drove lobbying in this area.
Jackson Vaughn might have chosen its niche well, if a quarterly uptick in lobbying spending by the financial, real estate and insurance sector last quarter holds steady. Amid the overall slide, last quarter, the sector stood at the top of the pile in terms of lobbying outlays among all economic sectors. That’s despite a decrease of about $18.2 billion from the sector’s 2014 outlays.
Here’s what the jostling looks like by quarter:
Within the finance sector, much of the activity last quarter was driven by real estate companies. The industry’s spending jumped to $23 million in the fourth quarter of 2015 from $17 million in the third quarter:
The energy and natural resources industry dropped off the most. Even with spending falling nearly everywhere (the agribusiness, construction and lawyers/lobbyists sectors posted modest spending increases), energy companies stand out for their steadier and steeper slide.
Within the energy sector, oil and gas companies extended their lobbying slump for a third year, perhaps a lagging indicator of plunging global oil prices. That decrease is reminiscent of the downward slope in lobbying by electric utilities after a 2010 nosedive.
Lobbying firms across the board would love to halt the continuing decline, and may be hoping for new policies from a new president, whoever that may be. President Obama banned lobbyists from serving in certain positions in his administration, leading to one of the peak periods of “deactivation” by those in the influence industry. Lobbyists frequently go in and out of government to re-up their contacts and experience — and many enjoy being in the public sector, if not the pay cut that comes with it.
Then again, maybe not. Data suggest, as CRP reported in 2013, that the influence industry was still being altered by reforms after late-aughts scandals. It may be that Jack Abramoff simply casts a longer shadow than we know, one that could outlive the Obama era as it did the Bush administration.
Senior Researcher Dan Auble contributed to this report.