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Lobbying has become a part of American political life, with lobbyists usually representing business and trade associations, unions and membership groups. But, writes Jennifer M. Jensen, state and local governments can be lobbyists too. These groups often use their own employees – and not professional lobbyists – which means that their efforts go largely uncounted. With hundreds of billions in federal funding at stake, she argues that these subnational governments in the US cannot afford not to lobby the government.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 11,000 individual registered lobbyists who actively lobbied the US Congress in 2018. These lobbyists spent more than $3.42 billion making their cases before Congress. While those figures may seem large, they don’t even count much of the advocacy by state and local governments.

Lobbyist usually brings to mind someone who represents businesses or trade associations. Or they might represent unions, or membership groups that focus on public interest causes. The National Association of Manufacturers, Google, the United Auto Workers, the American Postal Workers Union, the AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons), and the National Rifle Association – each of these is a powerful lobbying organization, and each hires lobbyists to help press their case in Washington.

When they think about lobbyists, most people don’t think about the Midwestern Governors Association, a membership organization comprised of the governors of 12 American states. Or the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Or Miami-Dade County in Florida. Or the Senate of Puerto Rico. Yet each of these organizations has an office in Washington, D.C. that is staffed by professional lobbyists who are either government employees or consultants. State and local government lobbying is a narrow but significant piece of the lobbying ecosystem. Federal revenue distributed to the states in 2016 was over $637 billion, and the federal government also provided funds directly to cities. With that sort of money at stake, the lobbying by subnational governments is significant indeed.

Credit: Lincoln Property Company. Used with permission.

We know less about state and local government lobbying in Washington than we do about other types. Many studies on lobbying in the US, including Schlozman and Tierney’s seminal 1986 study, have explicitly excluded these types of organizations. Yet a growing number of researchers have focused specifically on state and local government lobbying. For example, monographs by Donald Haider and Anne Marie Camissa have investigated the largest public official associations in Washington. My monograph, The Governors’ Lobbyists, focuses on political development and activities of the national, regional and partisan governors associations as well as state lobbying offices in Washington; John Nugent has also focused significantly on the National Governors Association (NGA). We have learned how these groups mobilize, and how political context affects them. We have many case studies demonstrating their effectiveness – but it is hard to quantify their effectiveness in dollars returned.

As Frank Baumgartner and Beth Leech point out, it is difficult to determine interest group impact, and that is some of the reason it is difficult to measure just how effective state and local government lobbyists are. But it is also because the most significant players are the associations of public officials, but they typically don’t show up in lobbying reports, so it is difficult to track how much they spend.

If the governor of Pennsylvania establishes an office in Washington but hires a consulting firm to work solely for the state, and that consultant lobbies, then that consultant must register as a lobbyist for the state of Pennsylvania, and the state’s lobbying activities will appear in the database of congressional lobbying registrations.

But if the governor of Pennsylvania establishes an office in Washington and sends three state employees to work in that office, these employees are not considered lobbyists under the Federal Lobbying Act – even if they gather information, write letters, make calls, and have meetings to advance a political agenda in Congress. They are not lobbyists; they are partners in government. There is no lobbying registration, and no record of lobbying activities. Likewise, public official associations may be organized as a particular legal entity called instrumentalities of the state under the US tax code; though they are nonprofit organizations, they do not have to complete I-990 tax forms that provide information on organizational spending. This makes them quite different from nonprofit membership organizations such as the Sierra Club.

None of this activity includes direct advocacy by the public officials who run these governments. If a mayor goes to Washington to meet with her congressional delegation to argue for money for her city, under federal definitions, she isn’t lobbying. She is advocating as an arm of the government. But paid lobbyists, often-labeled government relations professionals? The money spent on this sort of lobbying is worth it.

Governments don’t spend a lot of money on lobbying. Most state lobbying offices in Washington are comprised of only one or two staff members, and cost a few hundred thousand dollars in salaries, rent and supplies. This is a minuscule part of a state’s budget. Even hiring consultants at a relatively expensive hourly rate amounts to chump change. Likewise, cities that engage professional lobbyists are spending tiny amounts of their budgets. And we know that states and localities see rewards from their investments.

So the $3.42 billion in spending by registered lobbyists last year counts private lobbyists, but not the efforts of the public official associations or the full-time state and local government employees who act as lobbyists. The aggregate figure wouldn’t change that much if we did include the spending by these groups. Clearly, we have much to learn about the impact of state and local government lobbying—but we know that the impact is there, and we have evidence that at least some types of state and local government lobbying can be extremely financially beneficial for the states and localities paying for lobbyists.

We should remember, when looking at lists of registered lobbyists, that some important and effective players in the lobbying community are being left out.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.  

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About the author

Jennifer M. JensenLehigh University
Jennifer Jensen is deputy provost for academic affairs and professor of political science at Lehigh University. Much of Professor Jensen’s work examines the relationships between subnational governments and the federal government. She is particularly interested in how public officials represent their governments’ interests before the federal government. Her recent book, The Governors’ Lobbyists: Federal-State Relations Offices and Governors Associations in Washington (University of Michigan Press, 2016), examines governors’ lobbying offices and associations from their establishment to the present day.

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