Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying Fuels Big Government

A self-perpetuating problem.
By Phil Kerpen

Government keeps getting bigger, even though most Americans would like it to shrink. One big reason is that taxpayer dollars are being used to lobby directly against taxpayer interests. While ordinary Americans are busy working, their hard-earned tax dollars are being used to pay lobbyists who are fighting for higher taxes and bigger government.

Taxpayer-funded lobbying groups descend on Washington and state capitals every time legislation to limit the size, cost, and intrusiveness of government is under consideration. Such lobbying efforts may go largely unnoticed, but they are a significant barrier to the enactment of pro-growth, limited-government policies.

State governments, local governments, public universities, transportation authorities, and public water utilities spent an astonishing $132.7 million on federal lobbying in 2006, up 148 percent from an already sizable $53.6 million in 1998. Across this entire period, taxpayer-funded lobbying of Congress totaled at least $875.9 million.

The largest spending increases for lobbying were made by local governments and public universities. Local-government lobbying of the federal government jumped 193 percent (from $20.3 million to $59.5 million) between 1998 and 2006. Public universities increased their spending on federal lobbying efforts by 213 percent (from $10.1 million to $31.7 million) in that period.

Making matters worse, a loophole in congressional rules states that if you are a lobbyist for a government entity, you are exempt from the Senate’s $50 gift limit and the House’s gift ban. Taxpayer-funded lobbyists can give any gifts they want, without limit or disclosure requirements. The perplexing assumption seems to be that lobbyists working for private companies are inherently suspect and should be strictly limited, whereas taxpayer-funded lobbyists are inherently virtuous.

Gifts from taxpayer-funded lobbyists should be subject to even greater scrutiny than gifts from corporate lobbyists since they are likely bought with tax dollars — and without the knowledge of the taxpayers who are footing the bill. Clearly, taxpayer-funded lobbyists should not be given special exemptions that amount to an unfair advantage over their private and not-for-profit colleagues. Until the loophole is closed, taxpayer-funded lobbyists are held to a substantially lower standard, and can influence legislators, via gifts, without even being subject to disclosure rules.

Taxpayer-funded lobbying is a self-perpetuating problem: The national effect of taxpayer-funded lobbying, though difficult to quantify, is much greater than the $875.9 million spent directly on lobbyists and the undisclosed amount spent on gifts. The New York Times reported last year that taxpayer-funded lobbying is a central component of the dramatic growth in pork-barrel earmarks: “Enlisted almost exclusively to land earmarks, lobbyists for local governments have boomed alongside a broader explosion in such appropriations.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both taxpayer-funded lobbying and federal earmarks have tripled over the past nine years. Many in Washington, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), believe this explosion in earmarks has, in turn, created a culture of reckless spending, one that explains the dramatic overall growth in the size of government.

The problem may be even worse in the states. Americans for Prosperity Foundation has found that, in Texas alone, annual taxpayer-funded lobbying expenditures may be as high as $50 million annually. This suggests that the $132.7 million in taxpayer-funded lobbying at the federal level is just the tip of the iceberg.

The perpetual big-government expansion machine must be shut down. State and local governments already have their interests represented in Congress — by the senators and representatives whose job it is to represent their constituents. The enormous diversion of taxpayer resources entailed in siphoning off tax dollars at the state and local level to pay for lobbyists who push for ever bigger government must stop. Tax dollars should be used to deliver necessary government services, not to lobby for bigger government.

At both the federal and state levels, prohibitions should be enacted on entities that receive tax dollars and engage in lobbying activities. At a bare minimum, the gift-loophole should be closed.

— Mr. Kerpen is policy director for Americans for Prosperity Foundation. This column is adapted from a longer study available here.

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