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OpenGov Voices: Who tries to influence policies in Slovenia — and who knows about it?

Vid Doria, secretary general and project coordinator at Transparency International Slovenia.

After years of struggle, Slovenia finally introduced new provisions to regulate lobbying within the country’s anti-corruption act in 2010. Compared to most other European countries, the regulation is relatively strong. Here’s why.

Lobbying laws are often criticized for their poor definitions, however, the Slovenian legislation managed to adequately cover the scope of lobbying and how lobbyists and lobby targets (or clients) should be defined. Most importantly, though, the law implements a dual approach: Those who lobby — only professional lobbyists, though — and those being lobbied both face reporting obligations. The legislation also separates professional and nonprofessional (or “in-house”) lobbyists, while exempting groups and individuals that are trying to influence the decision-making process to enhance the rule of law, improve their democracy or protect human rights.

The legislation is not without its limitations, though. The national chapter of Transparency International, TI Slovenia, published a report last year that highlights the weaknesses of the law, including the murkiness around some of the definitions, such as state- and municipality-owned companies, civil servants and the public sector — the regulation now excludes some of the important public agencies, such as the Health Insurance Institute of Slovenia and the Employment Service of Slovenia. Overall, a certain degree of transparency is provided by the regulation, however, the implementation in practice shows certain inconsistencies and difficulties that need to be addressed.

Screenshot of kdovpliva.si by TI Slovenia.

Good disclosure is the first step towards greater transparency, but it must be accompanied by the necessary tools to make lobbying data meaningful. TI Slovenia thus teamed up with the Jožef Stefan Institute and Virostatiq to launch a platform to get a better picture of the lobbying landscape. Kdovpliva.si (literal translation for “Who influences?”) tries to shine a light on the connections between lobbyists, companies, politicians and state institutions through visualizations on three different kinds of networks: lobby contacts as well as two different networks of transactions between the companies represented by lobbyists and public sector. The network on lobbying contacts has data from around 700 reports between 2011 and 2014. However, as not all contacts are reported (for example, nonprofessional lobbyists don’t need to report their activities at all), there’s still a significant black hole around who’s lobbying whom in Slovenia.

TI Slovenia gets all the contact reports from the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption as scanned PDF files that need to be converted into machine-readable formats before they can be visualized.

Screenshot of kdovpliva.si by TI Slovenia, zoomed in.

The connections (edges) are the actual links between lobbying entities (nodes), aka lobbyists, lobby targets, lobby clients and state institutions where lobby targets work. TI Slovenia uses a special weighing mechanism for the edges through the estimated loyalty between these entities, and draws the networks of major interest groups and state institutions who act as power centers. The example below depicts the network of the pharmaceutical lobby in Slovenia, centered around the Agency of the Republic of Slovenia for Medicines and Medical Devices, with companies like Merck, Novartis, Eli Lilly or Aventis playing a major influential role.

The platform provides other details too, such as a list of all companies (where the font size indicates the frequency of contact), lobbying purposes and a timeline of lobbying contacts. Users can also filter by year and the frequency of connections.

In the upcoming months, TI Slovenia and its partners plan to make some further improvements to the platform by adding data on laws and bills, thus creating a legislative footprint (a comprehensive public record of lobbyists’ influence) on laws and regulations. The platform will thus provide a way to better analyze corruption risks embedded in the legislative process by mashing up the different datasets. Hopefully, this tool will enable policy researchers, think tanks, NGOs, journalists, citizens and other stakeholders to access and use the data for evidence-based advocacy.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com


Sunshine and shadows: Statehouses tackle open records laws in 2015

The political storm passes
Virginia’s statehouse weathers a storm. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)  

Transparency advocates, it’s a great time to check in on your state legislature! The 2016 state legislative sessions have already witnessed a host of important actions, with legislators across the country considering measures to increase and decrease governmental transparency. Two months into the new year, one state Virginia has already concluded its work for 2015, while several others are rounding into their final month of work. Here’s a roundup of some of the bills we’re watching.

Open Meetings and Public Records

A bipartisan effort to substantially limit public access to lawmakers’ meetings in Arizona has stalled for now. SB 1435 aimed to redefine “public meeting” to include only meetings where lawmakers at any level of government took a vote, potentially eliminating all deliberative sessions from the public eye. As local media pointed out, this “would have allowed meetings of the legislature, county supervisors, school boards and city councils to be conducted behind closed doors unless a vote was being held.” This was the most sweeping reduction of public meeting access to be proposed so far this legislative session, so public access advocates were heartened to see it not move forward. Another potential weakening of public meetings — Wyoming’s HB 232, a bill to allow public agencies to cast votes during closed executive sessions — also did not move forward after it failed to surmount an early procedural hurdle. And Tennessee, unfortunately, is continuing to move towards a change to its public records law that would create new fees for people who want to inspect public records. Submitted at the behest of school boards who feel burdened by excessive public interest, HB 315 would nonetheless apply to all government records and reduce public access.

Positive Developments

Meanwhile, in many states we are seeing a number of positive movements to increase sunlight on state lawmaking.

Trends in Public Access Restriction: Information about Executions

Following the botched executions of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood in Arizona, and Dennis McGuire in Ohio — and in the midst of increased federal attention to the methods of state execution — several legislatures have turned their attention to public access to information about executions. For the most part, these bills have sought to limit public access to information.

  • Ohio: Ohio’s response to the failure of its execution method was to increase secrecy about it. At the end of 2014, Ohio passed HB 663, which makes private any information relating to the people and drugs involved in state executions. A legal challenge to the constitutionality of this new provision has just failed.
  • Mississippi: A similar bill (HB 1305) was just rejected in Mississippi’s Senate after passing the state House.
  • Virginia ultimately rejected a bill, SB 1393, that would make execution drug information private and exclude it from coverage from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
  • Texas(HB 1587): Meanwhile, in Texas Rep. Terry Canales has just introduced a bill to proactively disclose information about execution pharmaceuticals in advance of any execution.

Transparency in Ethics, Lobbying and Campaign Finance

Ethics Reforms

Some positive ethics reforms are up for a vote — and have been achieved in one case already: Virginia managed to pass a significant ethics revision by the end of its short legislative session, reducing the limit on the value of gifts that legislators could accept to $100.

  • New Mexico is considering a more substantial ethics overhaul. A suite of bills would create a state ethics commission (HB 115 — New Mexico is currently one of just seven states that has no ethics commission), create clearer disclosures for lobbying (HB 155), and increase disclosure of “independent expenditures” in campaigns (HB 278 and SB 384.)
  • Indiana (HB 1002): Ethics reform is also being attempted in Indiana, where HB 1002 would create additional disclosure requirements for lawmakers, including by requiring lawmakers to list family members who are state lobbyists and to strengthen the state’s revolving door law.
  • Missouri (HB 228; SB 11): Missouri is also looking to improve their ethics law under two bills, one which limits the legislative revolving door by requiring a one-year cooling off period before legislators become lobbyists (HB 228) and the other which creates a two-year cooling off period for Assembly members, with additional restrictions (SB 11).

Dark Money

Campaign finance reform aimed at improving disclosure for “dark money” is on the agenda in a couple of additional states.

  • Hawaii (SB 1344): The legislature here is looking at SB 1344, a bill to increase transparency for SuperPACs.
  • Montana (SB 289): In Montana, the legislature seems poised to pass SB 289 which will also require additional transparency. (A further group of Montana campaign finance bills that would have mandated greater disclosure has already been tabled.)

Budget Cutbacks

As part of the legislative process — but sometimes harder to observe — we’ve unfortunately seen, state budget committees working against state ethics enforcement in several states, limiting the state’s ability to ensure that public bodies and officers comply with the state’s own laws.

    State bills (including budget bills) are so consequential, but it can be tough to keep an eye on them, especially during this era of reduced statehouse press corps. You can visit OpenStates to learn more about your state’s lawmaking, and set up alerts for bills or topics you care about using our Scout tool for state bills.


    Net neutrality foes take their fight to the airwaves

    Graphic showing globally connected online devices
    Image credit: Free Press/Flickr

    Though the 114th Congress is still in its infancy, the Capitol Hill debate over the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed net neutrality regulations is fiery as ever, fanned by wide-ranging advocacy efforts on either side of the issue. The Capitol building, however, is not the only theater in the multi-front battle for public opinion. A Sunlight Foundation analysis of new TV contracts and lobbying disclosures show cable providers have upped the ante both on and off the Hill, spending big to sway both members of Congress and their constituents.

    Cable giants and Internet activists both had the opportunity to air their grievances before federal legislators Wednesday in hearings before House and Senate committees. Both houses are considering Republican legislation that would ban broadband “throttling” and Internet fast lanes but prevent the FCC from regulating ISPs as a public utility.

    MORE: See all of Sunlight’s reporting on net neutrality.

    Public documents show that Internet service providers are increasingly targeting Joe Public with a slew of new ad buys on broadcast TV stations across the country.

    Ad contracts collected by Political Ad Sleuth show that an organization called Broadband for America (BFA) has negotiated air time on local television stations across the country, from Chicago to Denver to relatively rural markets such as Bismarck, N.D. and Clarksburg, W.V.

    Led by a bipartisan duo of former congressmen — Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., and Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn. — and funded largely by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the trade organization has been a consistent voice against net neutrality regulations, which it calls an “Internet tax on millions of customers,” citing a study by the Progressive Policy Institute. Free Press, an open Internet advocacy group, has argued the study is cable-backed misinformation.

    BFA has contracted air time in at least 16 different markets in recent weeks, publicly available ad contracts show. NCTA’s president, Michael Powell, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that his organization supports the current draft legislation and “will continue to reiterate [its] unwavering opposition to any proposal that attempts to reclassify broadband services under the heavy-handed regulatory yoke of Title II.” Powell has a unique perspective on this issue — he served as chairman at both BFA and the FCC.

    Meanwhile, some of the biggest players opposing the Internet recasting continued to pour millions into their cabal of lobbyists. A preliminary analysis of fourth quarter lobbying reports finds that Comcast ($7.1 million), AT&T ($4.2 million) and Verizon ($3.7 million) each doled out millions lobbying congress from October through December of last year.

    Each of those companies has a diverse legislative portfolio ranging from patent reform to cybersecurity to the tax code, making it unclear exactly how much each spent on net neutrality lobbying. A Sunlight analysis published in May of 2014 found that those three companies vastly outspent pro-neutrality groups that listed the issue a comparable number of times in their disclosures.

    Google, the most well-heeled voice on the “free Internet” side, spent a little under $4.6 million lobbying last quarter.


    Opengov Leaders: President Obama, use your bully pulpit to promote democracy reforms in the State of the Union

    President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address. Photo credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

    President Obama will try to set the tone for public policy in 2015 and the rest of his tenure with tonight’s State of the Union address. This annual tradition allows a president to highlight issues and make proposals that have the potential to both become priorities in the halls of Congress and become topics for national discussion and debate.

    To that end, we asked a diverse set of leaders on the forefront of advocating for civic engagement, civic technology, government accountability and open government to weigh in on what President Obama should say in tonight’s agenda-setting speech. Together, we’re raising our voice to ensure that the president knows we and the organizations and communities we represent are holding him accountable to promises he has made about improving government transparency and engagement, making money in politics reform, upgrading government technology, updating the Freedom of Information Act and more. We hope you’ll join the conversation by adding your comments and sharing this post with your networks!

    From our perspective at the Sunlight Foundation, we encourage President Obama to follow through on promises he made repeatedly on the campaign trail and in early State of the Union speeches to create more transparency about money in politics. He should support proposals that create real-time disclosure of campaign finance spending, like the Real Time Transparency Act, and reforms on lobbying to ensure that everyone who is a paid influencer is required to register and report his or her lobbying activities.

    News outlets are reporting that the president will once again, and without irony, decry the disastrous effects of the Supreme Court’s ill-fated Citizens United v. FEC decision, as he did five years ago in the State of the Union speech that immediately followed that ruling. It’s worth noting that this is an issue where the president has not “walked the walk” of reform. Despite regularly deploring the influence of money in politics, his embrace of super PACs and dark money to fill his campaign coffers and that of fellow democrats, not to mention his lack of vocal leadership in pushing for a revamp of disclosure reforms in light of the explosion of multimillion dollar political donations from an increasingly shrinking pool of deep-pocketed donors remains incredibly disappointing for many of us in the reform community.

    To be sure, there’s still time for President Obama improve his track record by pushing Congress and the Federal Election Commission to adopt new disclosure requirements so that we can know who’s trying to influence our elections. One bill he should throw his weight behind is the SUN Act — the Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act — introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. This bill addresses the problem of dark money by requiring disclosure of large donors to nonprofits that choose to engage in political activities and put already public information about nonprofits online in a searchable, usable format.

    Those are our priorities, keep reading for five other perspectives, and please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts: What do you hope to hear tonight?

    Allowing a handful of lawyers at the Department of Justice to write “secret laws” that justify everything from torture and domestic surveillance to the use of drones to carry out targeted killings is not a practice that should be allowed to continue outside the public eye.

    These opinions by the Office of Legal Counsel are binding on the executive branch but are often kept private. It’s time for President Obama to show that he is willing to support transparency and openness measures that hold his administration to a higher standard.

    There’s still time for President Obama to have a forceful impact on his legacy. He can do much in two years to improve on a record that has, unfortunately, been marked by extreme steps to squelch leaks and punish whistleblowing. This is about showing that this administration is not only willing but committed to holding itself accountable to the American people.

    Open government should mean better government built in full partnership with “We the People.” It should mean better service delivery and easier access for all Americans to the heart of our democracy: our public laws, public officials and a public accounting of where and how every dime of our tax dollars is spent. With a dazzling array of technologies and innovations at our fingertips, truly open government should possible in every state house, city hall and even our nation’s capitol.

    Much work remains to fulfill the heady open government promises made at the dawn of President Obama’s term. We have a long way to go to change the Culture of Closed that still reigns supreme. That culture change will only arrive through cooperation and collaboration, two things in dearly short supply in today’s Washington, D.C.

    I hope to hear the president tout his incipient open government accomplishments—from the General Service Administration’s crowdsourced development of a civic engagement playbook, to the creation of 18F and implementation of the DATA Act. But I also hope to hear a clear commitment to work with the career civil service, the Senate and the House of Representatives to ensure that, when the president rides off into the sunset, these small victories do not disappear, but endure and grow.

    President Obama has time to convince the public – and the agencies – that he meant it when he said he wanted his administration to be the most transparent. To many, it does not appear that the agencies are convinced: they continue to block FOIA requests for information about the development of policy. The president should put the power of his office behind a bill that reins in agency abuse of the b(5) deliberative process exemption to withhold information and makes the FOIA a tool for public accountability.

    The president also can and should move from vague statements promoting greater national security transparency and:

    • order disclosure of information about how surveillance under Executive Order 12333 functions;
    • acknowledge drone and missile strikes against individuals, including any civilian deaths;
    • end the censorship of information about the CIA torture program, which continues after the release of the summary of the Senate report.

    Six years ago, on his first full day in office, President Obama promised to create an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” He went on: “In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears … The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”

    Despite these fine words, to date, the White House has failed to fulfill its own 2008 campaign promise to “create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable, and downloadable format.” He has two years left to fulfill this promise; we are still waiting.

    The League of Women Voters would like President Obama to address our primary policy priorities – protecting and engaging voters, reforming money in politics and defending our environment – in his State of the Union speech. With the president’s support, we would like to see the DISCLOSE Act, which would ensure that voters know the identity of donors who have been secretly financing campaign expenditures in federal elections, become law in the 114th Congress. We’d also like presidential support for legislation that defines coordination between candidates and outside spending groups, including super PACs, in order to limit the big money flowing into our elections.

    Outside of Congress, we would like to see the President support a redraft of the IRS proposal that defines election activities of 501(c) organizations to stop the abuse that allows secret campaign money to flow through tax-exempt organizations. The League also strongly supports the president’s Climate Action Plan and we would like him to call attention to the historic importance of acting to stop climate change. Finally, we hope the president will address the need to update the Voting Rights Act to ensure our elections are fair, free and accessible for all eligible citizens.


    All cooled off: As Congress convenes, former colleagues will soon be calling from K Street

    Seven years after President George W. Bush signed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) into law and then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., declared it to be “the most sweeping ethics reform since Watergate,” a joint analysis by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics suggests the effort may have misfired.

    Logo of open eye over the name Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets.org
    This report is a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics.

    A key provision of the bill reined in lobbying by members of Congress, their top staffers and other key government officials who vault from their federal posts directly into the influence industry. The idea was to limit their ability to “cash in” immediately on their insider knowledge by lobbying their former colleagues. The lobbying restrictions, which vary depending on an individual’s government position, are lifted after a set period of time.

    But the shackles, even while they’re on, are more spaghetti than steel. Of the 104 former congressional members and staffers whose “cooling off” period ends during the first session of the 114th Congress, which opens today, 29 are already in government relations, “public affairs” or serve as counsel at a firm that lobbies. And 13 of those are even registered as lobbyists already, working to shape policy in Congress or the executive branch on behalf of paying clients.

    The Unbanned: Class of 2015

    To view this table in a larger window, click here.1

    Among former senators whose lobbying restrictions end this week, one already has been serving as a board member of a Fortune 500 financial company; another is president of a politically aggressive think tank with a strong lobbying shop; one serves as senior counsel for two firms whose clients include top corporations, defense contractors and foreign governments; another is with a law firm whose client roster includes Microsoft, the National Football League and an arm of the Teamsters union. None of the four senators has registered to lobby.

    A picture of K Street and Capitol Hill shaking hands.
    Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation

    The many loopholes limiting who can lobby whom in Washington — and whether that lobbying must be disclosed to the public — make a hunk of Swiss cheese look like the Berlin Wall. With its patchwork of post-government lobbying restrictions, the section of the HLOGA that’s ambitiously titled “closing the revolving door,” in fact, does anything but. Some have argued that the law, which Sunlight supported, actually fostered a culture of shadow lobbying.

    Members of Congress and senior staffers are prohibited from making lobbying contacts or communications with former colleagues for a time after leaving their government post. For senators, the period is two years, for House members, one. Senior Capitol Hill staffers can go ahead and start lobbying right away — as long as they wait a year before contacting colleagues in their former office or committee. Even for ex-lawmakers, there’s a huge amount of wiggle room. According to House ethics guidelines, the law permits former members to “aid or advise clients (other than foreign governments or foreign political parties) concerning how to lobby Congress” as long as they don’t do the lobbying themselves.

    Welcome to Influence 2.0, a new lobbying culture populated largely by:

    • Lobbyists in waiting: Because there’s no ban on the background and other work that supports lobbying efforts, no ban on registering as a lobbyist and no ban on forming a lobbying firm, lawmakers and staffers are free to join lobbying shops or hang out their own shingles even while they are in their cooling off period. A recent report in The Hill newspaper touted the formation of a new lobbying firm by aides to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and an aide to former Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, complete with what sounded like an endorsement by Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a member of the House GOP leadership team.
    • Shadow lobbyists: A number of former lawmakers and Hill staffers never bother to register as lobbyists at all, even after their cooling off period has ended and even though they hold key posts in organizations engaged in what to most laypersons looks like lobbying. Prime examples include former Sen. Chris Dodd, president of the Motion Picture Association of America; former Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; and former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who has worked for a number of firms that lobby — and recently announced he’s forming his own lobbying shop, even though he has never registered to lobby.

    This is not a new phenomenon. The Center for Responsive Politics’ revolving door database shows hundreds of individuals who have passed between the public sector and K Street. Many firms trumpet their connections to the corridors of power. HillStaffer, for example, a bipartisan lobbying firm made up of Hill veterans, entices prospective clients by “providing access to a vast bipartisan network of former Capitol Hill staffers and senior federal Agency officials” according to its website. And Covington & Burling LLP openly touts its former congressional members, staffers and even an ex-cabinet secretary.

    Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, says that he pushed for a ban on all lobbying activity during the cooling-off period when Congress was drafting HLOGA but that Democratic chairs of House committees threatened to kill the entire bill unless restrictions were weakened. Holman calls the resulting patchwork “woefully inadequate,” adding: “It just doesn’t work.”

    But the incoming president of the Association of Government Relations Professionals, James Hickey, thinks the law’s emphasis on lobbying contacts rather than all lobbying activity is well placed. “Information can be gleaned from many different sources,” argued Hickey, a former Republican Hill staffer, “but the relationships are what make this town work.”

    Attempts to slow down the revolving door have seen flickers of interest in recent years, but have gone nowhere in Congress. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., made headlines for the Close the Revolving Door Act, which would have permanently banned former members from lobbying Congress.

    The bill died in committee.

    For now, public policy in Washington will continue to be influenced by players like some of those we’ve highlighted from our study:

    Former members of Congress

    Kent Conrad

    head and shoulder shot of Kent Conrad, white male with light brown hair, wire spectacles in suitcoat
    Former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

    Conrad, a former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, can lobby without constraint only as of Friday. But for the last two years since he retired from Congress, the North Dakota Democrat has been one of 10 members of the board of Genworth Financial, a Fortune 500 insurance company.

    It’s a part-time job but a remunerative one: According to the company’s most recent proxy statement, directors are paid an annual retainer of $190,000 — 40 percent in cash and the remainder in deferred stock.

    Richmond-based Genworth survived a near-death experience during the 2008 economic meltdown but has recently been feeling heat from investors — apparently because the firm underestimated the longevity of recipients of its long-term health care policies.

    Since the late 1980s, Genworth has spent more than $40 million lobbying Congress and some $4.5 million on state and federal campaign contributions.

    This year, the company reported lobbying Congress on Dodd-Frank implementation, long term insurance and bankruptcy law, among other things. More transparent than most companies, Genworth maintains a public webpage detailing its political contributions and connections.

    Jim DeMint

    The South Carolina Republican iconoclast has been outplaying insiders at their own game for years.

    Head and shoulders shot of former Sen. Jim DeMint, white male with brown hair, in suitcoat
    Former Sen. Jim DeMint (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

    As a member of the Senate in 2008, DeMint established his own PAC, Senate Conservatives Fund, to support like-minded fiscal conservatives. The group helped to engineer primary upsets of several candidates backed by leaders of his own party. But after DeMint-backed firebrands cost the GOP several Senate seats in 2010, DeMint promised to avoid targeting his own party’s incumbents.

    By 2012, however, all bets were off. First, DeMint spun off Senate Conservatives Action, a super PAC that could raise and spend in unlimited amounts while keeping him at arms length. Then, he abruptly quit his Senate seat to join the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy group with its own lobbying arm. His political machine went right back on the intraparty attack, taking on, among others, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

    DeMint told National Journal recently that he’s eager to get back to rubbing shoulders with senators now that his cooling-off period is over — it ended New Year’s Day — but members of Congress already don’t feel he’s ever been on ice. In 2013, a number told Politico that they saw DeMint as the force behind the lobbying campaigns of Heritage Action, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm. Since registering as a lobbying group in 2010, Heritage Action has reported spending more than $1 million trying to influence Congress.

    Kay Bailey Hutchison

    Head and shoulders shot of Kay Bailey Hutchison, white female with blonde hair wearing a white dress, gold earrings and lipstick
    Former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

    The Texas Republican became a free agent on Jan. 2. But ever since a month after her departure from the Senate two years ago, she’s been a senior counsel at Bracewell Giuliani, a lobbying powerhouse whose clients include energy companies and defense contractors — the reason, no doubt, BG’s website trumpets Hutchison’s tenure on congressional committees with jurisdictions over their interests.

    Six months after leaving the Senate, Hutchison also joined the International Advisory Board of public affairs behemoth Fleishman Hillard. On its website, the firm advertises that its blue-chip team of IAB members “provides clients with hands-on counsel.” Those clients have included foreign governments, such as Japan, Turkey and Nigeria, as well as major U.S. corporations including AT&T, Proctor and Gamble, Hyatt and ConAgra.

    Jon Kyl

    When he left the Senate, Kyl was No. 2 in the Republican leadership, had powerful perches at both the Finance and Judiciary committees and a reputation for doing the hard work to get legislation through Congress. In 2010, Time magazine listed the Arizonan among the 100 most influential people in the world; Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrote the encomium, praising his “encyclopedic knowledge of domestic and foreign policy.”

    Head and shoulders shot of Jon Kyl, white male with greying hair in suitcoat and red tie
    Former Sen. Jon Kyl (Photo credit: U.S. Congress via GitHub)

    Two months after his final term ended, Kyl joined D.C. law and lobbying powerhouse Covington & Burling, which quoted McConnell’s words in announcing his hire. Kyl, who became eligible to contact his old colleagues on behalf of clients Friday, has not registered as a lobbyist, though many of his co-workers in the firm’s government affairs practice have.

    Among them are Bill Wichterman, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. After joining Covington & Burling, Wichterman lobbied on behalf of the NFL for legislation to enforce the Federal Wire Act’s ban on Internet gambling, then joined the Bush administration where he played a role in implementing it. The firm highlights its successful lobbying for the NFL on its website; unmentioned is the role Wichterman played in the Bush White House or that the Senate sponsor of the bill was Kyl.

    According to the firm, Kyl has been advising corporate clients. But in an interview with Politico, Kyl said he couldn’t wait to jump back in the game with both feet: “From my perspective, it will be just good to go back and visit with folks,” Kyl said. “I had a good relationship with Leader [Mitch] McConnell, and in that capacity we worked a lot with Speaker [John] Boehner. I’m really looking forward to getting back on the Hill.” Which companies benefit from his advice is unknown, but the firm represents a wide variety of clients ranging from online retailer Amazon.com to Chinese autoparts maker Wanxiang Group.

    Former congressional staffers

    Jeff Dobrozsi

    In September, Apple Inc. hired Dobrozsi, long-time chief of staff for Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., to lobby House Republicans. Dobrozsi had also worked for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, before Boehner became House Speaker. As a former member of Boustany’s senior staff, Dobrozsi is not permitted to lobby his former boss or his staff for one year, but he can lobby other House members and staffers.

    On Apple’s lobbying disclosure forms, Dobrozsi is listed as advocating on the company’s behalf on corporate and international tax reform. One of the top items on Apple’s tax agenda in 2014 was the tax extenders bill that was approved in the waning days of the Congress. Indeed, Apple has been held up as the poster company for one of the tax breaks within, the so-called “look-thru” rule, which allows it and other high tech companies to shift income to countries with lower tax rates. Guess who introduced a bill in April to make the “look-thru” rule permanent? Dobrozsi’s then-boss, Boustany.

    Jake Menefee

    Menefee joined Marathon Petroleum as manager of federal government affairs in March 2014. Before that, he served as deputy chief of staff for Rep. James Renacci, R-Ohio. Renacci serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax matters — an important connection for Marathon.

    Among the issues that Menefee is lobbying on, for example, is helping the company oppose repeal of an accounting method known as LIFO, “last in, first out,” which allows companies to count the most recently purchased inventory as having been used first. LIFO helps companies minimize taxes in the face of rising prices, and is used heavily by the petroleum industry. LIFO repeal has been proposed by President Barack Obama as a way of capturing more revenue. Menefee is also helping represent Marathon on the issue of master limited partnerships (MLP Structure), which Marathon has taken advantage of and which greatly reduces corporate taxes, as well as a comprehensive tax overhaul in general.

    Menefee is also joining efforts to lobby for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would benefit Marathon. Renacci is a strong supporter.

    Alexandra Sollberger

    After some five years on the Hill, most recently working as communications director for two key committees, the House Small Business Committee and the House Education & the Work Force Committee, Sollberger was hired by the Podesta Group.

    There she serves as a Republican lobbyist in a firm known for its deep Democratic connections; her official bio notes that she has “strong relationships with House Republican leaders,” which will come in handy now that the GOP has strengthened its lead in the House.

    Currently her sole client is Google. Lobbying disclosure forms say that she is working on patent legislation, cybersecurity and privacy issues, among others. As a member of the Coalition for Patent Fairness, Google has been pushing hard for a patent overhaul that had gained ground on both sides of the aisle but then faltered in the last Congress. The company has taken some heat for lobbying on privacy bills that would ease restrictions on sharing of personal data between corporations and the government.

    Michele Varnhagen

    As Labor Policy Director for Democrats on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Varnhagen worked closely with its then-top-ranking Democrat, George Miller of California. In 2012, she was considered for the position of assistant secretary at the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration.

    She’s now a registered lobbyist at the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), the mammoth seniors’ advocacy group with a membership base in the tens of millions. It’s most well known for advocating for the protection of Social Security and Medicare, but those are just two prongs of a multifaceted policy agenda focused on services and benefits that affect seniors the most. The most recent lobbying disclosure from AARP shows the group lobbied on everything from the Affordable Care Act, to access to mental health services, to housing programs for seniors.

    The Education and Workforce Committee recently reached a bipartisan agreement on multiemployer pension reform, which ultimately cleared the House.

    Mary Springer

    In October 2013, Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Va., signed on as an original co-sponsor of the National Defense Authorization Act — not a big surprise since he’s a member of the House Armed Services Committee that helped produce the giant bill. As chairman of the subcommittee on readiness, Wittman and his staff played key roles in shepherding the bill through Congress. Just days after the bill was signed into law in late December 2013 by President Obama, Wittman’s chief-of-staff, Springer, decamped from his office to join DRS Technologies, becoming director of legislative affairs for the defense contractor.

    Immediately registering as a lobbyist, Springer reported she continued to work on behalf of her new employer on the legislation she’d been involved with crafting on behalf of her old employer.

    Before working for Wittman, Springer was legislative director for his predecessor, Rep. Jo Ann Davis. While working for Davis, Springer earned a master’s degree from the U.S. Naval War College. Both Davis and Wittman have specialized in military issues, serving on the Armed Services Committee. Since he took office in 2007 Wittman has developed close ties with the defense industry — his campaign committee collected more than $221,000 from the defense sector in the 2014 cycle alone, almost 20 percent of all of his campaign fundraising.

    Springer’s new employer has also developed a friendly relationship with Wittman. In the 2014 cycle, Wittman received $8,500 in PAC donations from DRS Technologies’ corporate PAC — $4,500 of which went to Wittman’s campaign after Springer took over the company’s legislative affairs shop.

    E. Ray Beeman

    Beeman is not a stranger to the revolving door — this is actually the second time he’s left the Hill for work in private practice. From 2011 until August 2014, Beeman was tax counsel and senior advisor on tax reform to the House Ways and Means Committee. In November, Beeman was hired to be a principal in the tax department of the powerhouse accounting firm Ernst & Young.

    Ernst & Young’s own announcement of Beeman’s hiring trumpeted his work preparing the Tax Reform Act of 2014, the Republican Party’s major piece of legislation on taxes in the 113th Congress and the signature piece of legislation for outgoing Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. Beeman was also involved with developing “discussion drafts related to international tax, financial products and pass-throughs,” Ernst & Young’s announcement noted.

    Prior to his most recent stint shaping tax law on Capitol Hill, Beeman was a partner with lobbying firm Venable LLP. While a registered lobbyist for Venable, Beeman represented major clients like Chrysler, Lockheed Martin and Marriott. Beeman joined Venable in 2005, after four years as counsel for the Joint Taxation Committee, the special select committee that coordinates tax policy between the House and Senate.

    As a committee staffer, Beeman won’t be eligible to lobby his old colleagues on Ways and Means until fall 2014. But he will be able to advise clients and colleagues on tax policy. And even before he can return to lobby his former co-workers, his move will make the already close relationship between Ernst & Young and the Way and Means committee even cozier. In the 2014 cycle, Ernst & Young’s corporate PAC and employees contributed $298,000 to members of the committee.

    Thomas McLemore

    Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, saluted McLemore, the departing staff director of its Defense subcommittee, and said he hoped the hard working 13-year congressional aide would find more time in his new job to spend time with is family. Given the amount of cyber security funds stuffed into the recently passed Cromnibus, McLemore, now a lobbyist at Northrop Grumman focusing on, among other things, expanding the aerospace giant’s virtual defense business, won’t be leaving the office anytime soon.

    The Cromnibus includes $28 million in cyber security funding for the Departments of Agriculture and $95 million for Commerce. The Pentagon has made cyber security a priority, routing $5 billion in funding to address online threats. And with the recent hacking of Sony, lawmakers are likely to pile more dollars into cyber security efforts in the future.

    Northrop Grumman has already tapped into some of that funding: In 2012, the company won a $189 million contract to beef up security for Defense and intelligence agencies. McLemore, who was staff director for the House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee as well, will focus on the legislative side of things, according to the company, where his “extensive experience” in Congress will “serve him well.” And his new employer.

    Michael Ward

    When TechNet announced the hiring of Michael Ward as vice president in charge of its federal policy and government relations portfolio, it included testimonials from two members of the 113th Congress. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, praised his former staffer as “a seasoned professional on Capitol Hill with deep ties to the House Republican majority.”

    An organization of CEOs of technology-focused companies that include Apple, Google, Amgen, Oracle and Comcast, among others, TechNet pushes for the tech industry’s position on issues that include cybersecurity, STEM education funding, changes in immigration policy for highly skilled workers and trade policy that promotes “global innovation policy.” Ward spent 14 years working for several House lawmakers, including Reps. Todd Rokita, who’s on the Committee on Education and the Workforce (well-placed for lobbying on STEM issues), and Rogers.

    TechNet bills itself as “the technology industry’s largest and most aggressive fundraising organization and most active supporter of candidates and elected officials on both sides of the aisle,” and says it offers members “unparalleled access to the leading decision makers in Congress, the Administration and state governments.”

    1Table Methodology: To populate our table we relied on the House Clerk’s post-employment notifications and verifiable sources on the whereabouts of the former congressional employees. When we could not find a reliable source, we marked that individual’s job status as “unknown.” This study did not tackle the task of tracking former employees from the executive branch. (Back to top)


    Fixed Fortunes: As Congress rushes business, big business wins

    The very last bill the Senate sent to President Barack Obama’s desk Tuesday night, as the clock ran out on the the 113th Congress, was a holiday package worth billions of dollars to Fixed Fortunes 200 companies that Sunlight identified earlier this year. The goodies include tax breaks, new spending and even a revision to the Affordable Care Act.

    Health insurers like Blue Cross/Blue Shield, manufacturers like Boeing and General Electric, restaurant chains like McDonald’s, big banks like Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase & Co. and defense contractors like Lockheed Martin all stand to benefit from the Senate’s uncharacteristically bipartisan vote.

    Those companies are among the 200 that Sunlight, after examining 14 million records including campaign contribution and lobbying data, identified as being most politically active corporations in America. On average, Fixed Fortunes companies got $760 in federal business and support for every dollar they spent on politics between 2007 and 2012. This year, they’ve been just as active.

    Corporate lobbyists’ ability to win financial benefits tailored just for their clients in the waning days of a lame duck Congress is arguably a result of partisan gridlock: The lawmakers’ inability to accomplish even the most fundamental of tasks of a legislature — passing a budget and spending bills — left Congress facing a deadline to keep the government from shutting down or voters taxes from being hiked. The result: a series of grab-bag must-pass bills that became inviting targets for special interests looking to toss aboard a few riders of their own.

    Some 89 Fixed Fortune companies disclosed lobbying Congress to renew $32 billion of expiring tax breaksin a the bill the Senate approved last night; the House approved it last week. The tax breaks are narrowly targeted provisions that benefit companies in specific industries.

    The nation’s largest railroad, Union Pacific, and the parent company of BNSF Railway, Berkshire Hathaway, both lobbied for the railroad track maintenance credit, which will save railroad companies an estimated $207 million over ten year. National Amusements, which owns the CBS television network, Viacom and Paramount, lobbied for a film and television production tax break worth as much as $245 million in 2015 alone. Its competitors among Fixed Fortunes companies, Walt Disney and Comcast, did not specify the Hollywood tax break, but did disclose lobbying on the tax extenders bill.

    Darden Restaurants, which owns the Longhorn Steakhouse and Olive Garden chains, and McDonald’s lobbied on a provision that gives a tax break for improvements to any commercial building where, in the words of the Internal Revenue Code, “more than 50 percent of the building’s square footage is devoted to preparation of, and seating for on-premises consumption of, prepared meals.” The tax break for restaurants is one component of a provision that will cost the Treasury $2.3 billion over ten years. Safeway, meanwhile, pushed for a bigger charitable deduction for food it donates to charities—all told worth $143 million to the companies that claim the credit when they file their taxes in 2015.

    Energy credits also drew lobbying, including from oil companies like Anadarko Petroleum and utility firms like Xcel Energy. And 20 companies, including defense giants BAE Systems and United Technologies, pharmaceutical maker Amgen and software developer Microsoft lobbied to extend the $7.6 billion research credit (although they would have preferred to make it permanent).

    Other holiday goodies for the nation’s biggest political spenders turned up in the “CRomnibus,” the 1600-page continuing resolution and omnibus spending bill that will fund most of the government in 2015.

    The bill contains items on the wish list of multiple Fixed Fortunes firms, including funding for the Export-Import Bank (which benefits manufacturers like Boeing and General Electric as well as big banks) and an extra $479 million to buy F-35 fighters, made by Lockheed Martin and United Technologies. (For an excellent rundown of spending provisions in the bill, see this analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense.)

    And while Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or eliminate the individual mandate, or to otherwise dismantle the law all failed, Congress did manage to approve a special provision that amends it. Spotted by National Review, it lets Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies count as “patient care” the expenses that other insurers must count as administrative expenses. The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to spend 80 to 85 percent of their premiums on care rather than administrative expenses.

    But the most widely reported special interest provision in the CRomnibus allowed banks to speculate on derivatives using deposits insured by taxpayers, overturning a key reform in the Dodd-Frank legislation passed in the wake of the 2008 financial industry meltdown. The measure drew the ire of Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. But one of the Democratic Party’s major benefactors, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, personally called lawmakers to support the measure. So did Citigroup; the New York Times reported in 2013 that the bank backed the change. And why not? Its lobbyists, in fact, wrote the measure.


    European Union announces new rules aimed to enhance lobbying disclosure

    Photo of President Jean-Claude Juncker
    President Jean-Claude Juncker.

    Last week, the European Commission revealed new rules that will attempt to make EU lobbying more transparent. Beginning December 1, top-level EU officials will be required to publicly declare their meetings with lobbyists. The announcement comes in the wake of scandal for the EU’s new President, Jean-Claude Juncker. Just days after taking office on November 1, documents were leaked alleging secret tax deals in Luxembourg with big corporations that occurred during Juncker’s term as prime minister of the small Western European country.

    Though the details of Luxembourg’s tax scandal call into question the trustworthiness of the new EU leadership, any policy that sheds light on the lobby industry could represent a positive step forward in Europe, where there are currently estimated to be over 30,000 lobbyists — but exact numbers, contacts and identities remain mired in secrecy. The EU created its first voluntary lobbying registry in 2011, but without a mandatory requirement to register, the details in the database are sparse. So far, only about 6,500 entities have disclosed any information on their lobbying activities.

    Earlier this year, Jean-Claude Juncker made a public commitment to increasing transparency in the influence of lobbying in Brussels, including the implementation of a mandatory register. The most recently introduced rules would require Commissioners, their Cabinets, and the Directors-General of the Commission services to publish the dates, locations and names of organisations and individuals met and the topics discussed.

    Information about lobby contacts and meeting details can play a crucial role in increasing transparency around the influence industry, through empowering watchdogs and citizens to connect the dots as legislation is being debated, tweaked and passed. And although the best way to ensure comprehensive and effective oversight is to require mandatory disclosure from both public officials and lobbyist groups, we believe that requiring top-level officials to disclose their contacts and meetings might have some positive effects in itself. First, it demonstrates public institutions leading by example, which could be a crucial step in creating a culture of transparency and restoring trust in public institutions. Second, the disclosure of contacts and meetings could help shine a light on unregistered lobbyists and put significant pressure on top-level EU officials to meet with registered groups only. Third, once we have a more complete picture of lobbyists via a mandatory register, the availability of the two different data sources will significantly increase public scrutiny and oversight through potential comparison.

    However, watchdogs are concerned that the most recent announcement is simply a surface-level PR-exercise designed to alleviate public fears about secret influence permeating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and the U.S. The press release is still vague on the exact parameters, but concerns have arised over the scope of the rule which is limited to the Commissioner, the Cabinet and Director General and therefore likely doesn’t apply to those most heavily lobbied on TTIP (and most other issues). There are other red flags indicating that the rules may just be a distraction from the real secrecy in TTIP as there will be no public release of the draft negotiations, a necessary step in helping stakeholders determine whether the negotiations are being carried out in the public interest.

    We can only hope that the most recently introduced rules for disclosure are part of a holistic effort by the new administration and only a first step to make EU lobbying more accountable. Going forward, proper implementation will play a crucial role: the data should be released in a timely and accessible fashion and accompanied by proper oversight. For more details on how Sunlight’s vision for increasing transparency around lobbying, please see our Lobbying Disclosure Guidelines.


    Fixed Fortunes: Biggest corporate political interests spend billions, get trillions

    Between 2007 and 2012, 200 of America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. A year-long analysis by the Sunlight Foundation suggests, however, that what they gave pales compared to what those same corporations got: $4.4 trillion in federal business and support.

    That figure, more than the $4.3 trillion the federal government paid the nation’s 50 million Social Security recipients over the same period, is the result of an unprecedented effort to quantify the less-examined side of the campaign finance equation: Do political donors get something in return for what they give?

    Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested the answer to that question was no. Corporate spending to influence federal elections would not “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” the majority wrote in the landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.

    Sunlight decided to test that premise by examining influence and its potential results on federal decision makers over six years, three before the 2010 Citizens United decision and three after.

    We focused on the records of 200 for-profit corporations, all of which had active political action committees and lobbyists in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 election cycles — and were among the top donors to campaign committees registered with the Federal Election Commission. Their investment in politics was enormous. There were 20,500 paying lobbying clients over the six years we examined; the 200 companies we tracked accounted for a whopping 26 percent of the total spent. On average, their PACs, employees and their family members made campaign contributions to 144 sitting members of Congress each cycle.

    On average, 144 sitting members of Congress received money from the Fixed Fortune 200 each cycle. Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation

    After examining 14 million records, including data on campaign contributions, lobbying expenditures, federal budget allocations and spending, we found that, on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government. The $4.4 trillion total represents two-thirds of the $6.5 trillion that individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.

    Welcome to the world of “Fixed Fortunes,” a seemingly closed universe where the most persistent and savvy political players not so mysteriously have the ability to attract federal dollars regardless of who is running Washington.

    Political change, permanent interests

    During the six years we studied, newly elected Democratic majorities took control in the House and Senate. Two years later, the White House shifted from Republican to Democratic control, and two years after that the GOP came back to take the House. The collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 led to massive bailout efforts by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board, two massive stimulus bills and the loss of more than eight million jobs. Congress passed laws that overhauled health care insurance and financial industry regulation. Troops surged in Afghanistan and withdrew from Iraq. There were 16 separate “continuing resolutions” to fund the government, a debt ceiling standoff that caused a downgrade in the nation’s credit rating and a “super committee” to wrestle with the federal budget. As middle class Americans lost ground, the Fixed Fortune 200 got what they needed.

    What they needed included loans that helped automakers and banks survive the recent recession while many homeowners went under. It included full funding and expansion of federal programs started in the 1930s that, year after year, decade after decade, help prop up prices for agribusinesses and secure trade deals for our biggest manufacturers. It included budget busting emergency measures that funneled extra dollars to everything from defense contractors to public utility companies to financial industry giants. The record suggests that the money corporations spend on political campaigns and Washington lobbying firms is not an unwise investment.

    The Fixed Fortune 200 come from a wide range of industries. There are a host of familiar names among them, like Ford Motor Company, McDonald’s and Bank of America, as well as some less famous, like MacAndrews & Forbes, the Carlyle Group and Cerberus Capital Management. (For the complete list, including what they gave and what they got, click here.) There are retailers and investment banks, construction and telecommunications firms, health insurers and gun makers, entertainment conglomerates, banks and pharmaceutical manufacturers, among others.

    Out of 20,500 paying lobbying clients, the Fixed Fortune 200 accounted for a whopping 26 percent of the total spent. Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation

    Overall, the Fixed Fortune 200’s PACs, employees and their family members gave $597 million to political committees and disclosed spending $5.2 billion on lobbying. They make this enormous investment in politics in large part because their businesses are inextricably entwined with government decisions — including spending decisions.

    Government as business partner

    For example, the federal government issued contracts to purchase goods and services that totaled a little more that $3 trillion during the period; companies among the top 200 corporate political givers won $1 trillion of that, a third of the total. The Treasury Department managed $410 billion in loans and other assistance issued under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, created by Congress to cope with the 2008 financial crisis; of that amount, $298 million, about 73 percent, went to 16 firms among the Fixed Fortune 200. When the Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it funneled nearly $2.8 trillion through 29 Fixed Fortune firms. The companies that participated the most in politics got huge returns.

    Of the 200 corporations we examined, we could sum the financial rewards for 179. Of those, 138 received more from the federal government than they spent on politics, 102 of them received more than 10 times what they spent on politics, and 29 received 1,000 times or more from the federal government than they invested in lobbyists or contributed to political committees via their employees, their family members and their PACs.

    As for the other 21 companies on our list, while we could not quantify the financial benefits that some received, we were able to identify them. Some examples:

    • Arch Coal lists the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the government corporation that’s the largest public electricity producer, as one of its three biggest customers. TVA does not release data on its coal purchases.
    • Forest City Enterprises does not appear as a landlord in the Government Services Agency’s database of federal rental agreements, though its annual report notes that the U.S. government is the third-biggest customer for its pricey New York City office space.
    • Occidental Petroleum has leases on federal land to extract natural gas, but the government does not release information on how much that gas is withdrawn or how much it is worth.
    • And while the government has so far refused to release information on what retailers get the most purchases via food stamps, Wal-Mart went so far as to acknowledge in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that reductions in the now $78 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or food stamps — could have a significant impact on the company’s earnings, which totaled $476 billion in its most recent fiscal year.

    Of the 200 companies analyzed for Fixed Fortunes, 28 are in what the money in politics research organization the Center for Responsive Politics classifies as the communications and electronics sector, 21 in healthcare, 13 in defense and aerospace, 13 agribusinesses, 11 in energy and natural resources, and 7 in transportation. The biggest sector, accounting for 48 of the 200, was finance, insurance and real estate, which is consistently the largest source of campaign funds for politicians cycle after cycle. Congress and the executive branch have paid particular attention to the industry, approving hundreds of billions in aid to help it weather the financial crisis. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve advanced trillions in credit, which the nation’s central bank hoped would trickle down through the rest of the economy.

    Companies with the biggest returns on their political investments include three foreign financial service and banking firms, UBS and Credit Suisse Group from Switzerland, and Deutsche Bank of Germany, all of which benefited from the Treasury Department’s taxpayer-financed rescue of American International Group. Investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as well as commercial banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Bank of America also received far more from government than they put into politics: They benefited from the bailouts of the financial industry undertaken by Treasury and the Federal Reserve. Weapons manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of which disclosed spending more than $10 million each year on lobbying, also made the list. So did McKesson, a pharmaceutical wholesaler that is the biggest vendor for Veterans Affairs, and the Carlyle Group, a wealth management firm started by former government insiders who invest in firms that have significant involvement with government, such as defense, telecommunications and health care.

    A range of returns

    To catalogue the money flowing to and from the Fixed Fortune 200, we examined data on campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. We compiled and queried a host of government spending records, including spending approved through the normal budgeting process. We also looked at additional spending measures — extra-budgetary spending on the Global War on Terror, renamed Overseas Contingency Operations in 2009, and emergency or one-time measures like the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. And because the Federal Reserve made use of its power to advance credit to private firms in extraordinary circumstances, we also examined its interventions in the economy.

    For every dollar spent influencing politics, the Fixed Fortune 200 received $760 from the government. Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation

    See our methodology for a complete explanation of how we arrived at these numbers and more.

    Some of the gets are harder to quantify. While corporate interests disclose lobbying on federal spending — the budget and appropriations process — more than any other issue, they also seek to influence trade agreements, labor rules, environmental regulation and the Internal Revenue Code.

    Blue Cross and Blue Shield has its own provision in the tax code, section 833, that saves its companies an estimated $1 billion a year. Life insurance companies like New York Life and Pacific Mutual, and their customers, are eligible for tax breaks that save the industry $30 billion a year, with about $3 billion going to the companies and the balance going to their policyholders. The corporate tax code is full of loopholes and subsidies that companies lobby for to help their bottom lines; Citizens for Tax Justice researched the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosures filed by publicly traded corporations in an effort to determine their effective tax rates; its analysis included 89 members of the group Sunlight examined. The average effective tax rate of those companies was 17.7 percent between 2008 and 2012. Federal law, meanwhile, sets the corporate tax rate at 35 percent.

    As far as we can tell, one thing the Fixed Fortune 200 did not do, for the most part, was take advantage of the new opportunities to spend on politics that the Citizens United decision afforded them. The 200 corporate donors gave just $3 million to super PACs, with the bulk of that amount a single $2.5 million donation from Chevron to the Congressional Leadership PAC, a super PAC that’s been linked to House Speaker John Boehner. It’s important to note, however, that contributions by these companies to politically active nonprofits (a category that includes the Chamber of Commerce) are impossible to track because of tax laws that allow those entities to shield donors.

    Though beyond the scope of our study, which focused on the federal government, it is worth noting that 174 of the 200 corporations won subsidies from state and local governments, according to Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks economic development programs. The Citizens United decision also applies to state election laws, giving corporations the right to speak at the state and local levels as well.

    Nonetheless, opinion polls show that majorities of Americans generally trust governments in their city halls, township boards and state capitals. That doesn’t compare well to the mere 19 percent of Americans who trust their federal government. Frustration with Washington runs high for any number of reasons, but consider:

    • Two-thirds of Americans believe corporations pay too little in taxes and that they should pay more, but tax reform stalls in Congress year after year;
    • Prominent politicians from both parties have criticized corporate welfare programs that benefit big business for more than two decades, but not one of those programs has been repealed;
    • The president and Congress ended a reduction in payroll taxes that benefited wage earners in January 2013 but extended business tax breaks for insurers, energy companies and other corporations;
    • Federal bailouts returned financial industry firms that started the crisis to profitability, while middle class income and net worth of the middle class fell.

    More than seven years after Washington passed the first measures to stimulate the economy as the housing bubble started to burst, more and more Americans are living on less and less, without as much savings and other assets to fall back on in hard times. Washington policies that have restored corporate profits and made the stock market boom have left much of the country behind. Perhaps that’s why a whole host of polls, from networks and news organizations and nonprofit groups, show large majorities of Americans, year after year, saying that the country is on the wrong track.

    In its Citizens United decision, the court took for granted that “favoritism and influence” are inherent in electoral democracy and that “democracy is premised on responsiveness” of politicians to those who support them. We found ample evidence of that.

    “The appearance of influence or access,” the court said, “will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

    It appears that the electorate — who stayed away from the polls this year in droves — might not agree.


    There’s no sunlight in the shadows

    Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

    Are we living in the world of Alice in Wonderland? That’s the first thought I had last night reading Jason Grumet’s piece on why transparency is ruining government. It’s a piece, I realized by the end, that does not see the world as it is.

    The summary of the argument is thus: “Oh, woe is us. No one in Congress can meet in private any more to deliberate, debate and compromise so we can get something done. The ‘new’ demand for transparency is the cause of increased partisanship, stalemate and just about everything else that’s wrong with government. The ‘radical transparency’ that we now operate under is bad so we need to go back to the ‘good ole days’ when a bunch of old white guys sat around in dark rooms, smoking cigars and cutting the deals.”

    Wait. Just. A. Minute.

    The idea that all meetings in Congress or the executive branch are open and accessible to the public, the assertion that senators and representatives can’t operate behind closed doors is simply laughable. Congress still exempts itself from the Freedom of Information Act, doesn’t operate under open meetings laws and doesn’t even have the same standards for archiving material that the executive branch does.

    The few changes in rules enacted in recent years that provide some additional openness could hardly be deemed radical, and did little to change how Washington operates.

    No one has called for the kind of “dark side to sunlight” Grumet describes. At Sunlight, we actually agree on his main point: Deliberation in front of the cameras doesn’t always produce the best public policy. We know the delicate nature of finding consensus, but we also believe that transparency is vital to hold government accountable for what it does in our name.

    Sunlight and our colleagues in the transparency community have championed real-time, online access to information about the actions of those who represent us in government and the private interests seeking to influence those actions. Because such information allows citizens to hold their elected officials accountable, we would like them to have it as soon as possible. We also believe that all public data should be publicly accessible, which today means online in digital formats.

    Because we take seriously the people’s role in our democracy, we pushed the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a rule requiring all non-emergency legislation to be posted online at least three calendar days before deliberation. Think of this as a “safety valve,” giving citizens a final opportunity to examine the changes to legislation, for lawmakers to look at the whole package and for everyone to raise questions and concerns about the bill while it can still have an impact. Lawmakers can and do craft those measures behind closed doors. But the “72-hour rule” gives the public a chance to learn about bills before they are voted on, when they can still have an impact. This is a practical way to balance the smoke-filled rooms that thrill Grumet with meaningful public engagement and participation.

    Fostering transparency and accountability in government is also why we think it’s time the Senate finally enter the Internet age and stop hiding their campaign donors by filing campaign finance reports on paper. It’s why we advocate the passage of smart legislation like the Real Time Transparency Act, a bipartisan bill that would require 48-hour disclosure of campaign contributions of $1,000 or more to candidates, committees and parties. Citizens could learn in days — rather than months — which special interests are seeking access to and influence over lawmakers by donating to their campaigns days, not months, after the fact. These reforms will help all of us better understand the interests that can sway officials’ votes on important policy matters that affect us all.

    Similarly, we’ve called for better, less vague disclosure of potential conflicts of interest by knowing more about the stock holdings and other assets owned by members of Congress. Having such information has helped journalists monitor financial interests of members of Congress to ensure there are no ethics breaches. And as the teeth have been ripped from the STOCK Act, it’s more important than ever to improve the transparency of political intelligence firms.

    Likewise, we advocate for modernizing lobbying disclosure to let the public know which lawmakers that lobbyists contact and what topics discussed. Current law requires only requires lobbyists to list the chamber of Congress they’re approaching, not the name of members, staffers or committees. It’s one thing to know the lobbyist met with a member of the Senate to discuss the federal budget, it’s quite more illuminating to know which particular lobbyists met with specific lawmakers and staff to discuss funding for this weapons system or that road project. Having that kind of information could actually help promote better deliberative discourse: others with an interest in the legislation could give their positions to the member of Congress, providing a fuller range of information and options.

    Do these reforms solve everything? No, but transparency can shine a light on what’s not working as well as what does. It allows people to better understand how government functions so they can participate in the dialogue that is our democracy. It lets us learn of ineffective programs and push for their reform or repeal. It can also enable citizens and their representatives to learn of and prevent bad policies from being enacted. It forces those elected to represent us to justify the decisions they make in public. Only by doing that can they build confidence that they have made decisions in the public interest and not on behalf of special interests.  Finally, transparency allows citizens to identify the authors of flawed or failed policies as well as successful ones, and hold them accountable (or reward them) at the ballot box.

    The person who said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” wasn’t some Watergate baby. It was the towering legal scholar Louis Brandeis, who died in 1941. As it turns out, transparency is hard-wired into the American democracy.


    The enduring power of the ex-senator

    three-quarters portrait of John Breaux, wearing a dark suit in his former Senate office with an American flag to his right.

    John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who served 32 years in Congress before opening a lobbying firm, will be back in his old committee room today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    To see the power of Washington’s revolving door — and the weakness of congressional lobbying regulations — check out two events today involving well-heeled corporate interests, health care policy and powerful former members of Congress.

    This afternoon at the offices of the influential Bipartisan Policy Center, one of the cofounders of the organization, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, will be emceeing a program presenting “innovative strategies” on improving the nation’s health from CEOs of major corporations and leaders of several health associations. Daschle is not registered as a lobbyist, even though he serves as a senior adviser to DLA Piper, a law firm that has spent nearly $137 million since 1989 lobbying on behalf of a wide range of blue-chip corporate clients.

    Those clients include two major health insurers, Aetna and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, both companies that are represented on the panel Daschle is moderating. The event is just an hour long, which is potentially noteworthy: Congressional regulations say an individual does not have to register as a lobbyist with Congress unless he or she spends more than 20 percent of his or her time working for an individual client in a given period.

    Thirty minutes after Daschle’s panel gets underway, his former Democratic Senate colleague, John Breaux, will be leading a discussion about the role of digital technology in health care in an even more impressive venue — in a Senate hearing room, sponsored by the Senate Select Committee on Aging, which the Louisianan used to chair. Breaux is a registered lobbyist with the Breaux Lott Leadership group, named after him and his partner, former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. The notice for the event gives a nod to Breaux’s role as one of the three leaders of the Alliance for Connected Health Care, an organization so new it does not yet appear to have filed the 990 form that would provide details on officers and expenses with the Internal Revenue Service. The other leaders: Lott and Daschle.

    While the Breaux Lott firm does not list Alliance for Connected Health Care as a client, Daschle’s employer, DLA Piper, does. DLA Piper registered as a lobbyist for the alliance in February and was paid $170,000 through the first half of this year.