Financial District: The Influence Business

| October 1, 2009

Lobbyists will spend close to $100 million this year trying to influence transportationmoney funding.

The transportation lobby spent at least $45 million in Washington in the first half of the year, most of it directed at trying to influence a new transportation bill, according to an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity (see sidebar on page 27 for information about the center). That lobby, according to the center, is composed of almost 1,800 varied entities that employ at least 2,100 lobbyists with intimate knowledge of transportation politics.

“Over the past two decades, this is the way federal transportation policy has largely been made in America – by a quasi-private club of interest groups and local governments carving out something for everyone, creating a nationwide patchwork of funded bypasses, interchanges, bridges, and rail lines with no over-arching philosophy behind it,” said the report.

Now lobbyists are focusing on reauthorization, says the report, and, “What emerges from Capitol Hill could be a more rational system. Or the cacophony could sharply worsen the ills already besetting America’s aging transport infrastructure: more gridlock on major commutes, bridges and roads in greater disrepair, lack of mass transit, and more.”

The roster of special interests paying lobbyists in 2009 to influence either the law itself or the annual appropriations decisions that are made based on the bill’s framework is formidable, says the center’s report. It includes:

More than 475 U.S. cities and 160 counties in 44 states, the vast majority of which are seeking funds for specific projects that will be chosen by Congress;

More than 55 local development authorities nationwide;

At least 65 private real estate development companies;

At least 95 transit agencies, 25 metro and regional planning organizations, a dozen individual states, and the national lobbying associations for all three groups;

More than 75 road and auto organizations, from highway builders and car manufacturers to interstate coalitions and trucking interests;

At least 65 construction and engineering groups, from cement and steel makers to domestic and foreign-owned builders;

More than 45 rail organizations, 50 shipping companies and ports, and 45 additional transportation-centric outfits, from bicycle coalitions to research groups;

More than 140 universities seeking funds for local projects or campus research centers.

According to the center hundreds of public and private groups spent more than $19 million on lobbying teams focused solely on surface transportation in the first half of the year. But because most transportation lobbyists also work on other issues for their clients that figure “drastically understates the total amounts being spent by local governments, businesses, and other interest groups around the nation.” Lobbyists don’t have to report how much they are spending on each specific issue, but the center estimates that “even if just 10 percent of their time was spent on transportation in the first half of 2009, that would add more than $26 million to the total spent on transportation lobbying, pushing the total past $45 million.”

The report identified a two-headed monster of a problem. When there was enough money in the Highway Trust Fund for almost all parties to feel their needs could be fairly well met there was a certain civility to the process of doling out funds. Now there is nowhere near enough money, and perhaps little chance of their being enough in the foreseeable future. So the battle for what there is available is more intense. At the same time everybody along the supply chain from the Highway Trust Fund to the company out at work on the road is now pushing and shoving (or lobbying) to get some of it, usually by trying to lobby someone in Washington. And since DOT has 108 programs, there are potentially 108 ways to try and get one’s hands on some federal money.

This is, incidentally, one of the problems that the Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, James Oberstar (D-MN), is determined to change as he tries to rebuild the U.S. DOT. It is Oberstar’s intention to make that 108 figure something close to single digits with his restructuring plan.

Hundreds of lobbyists ply their trade mostly in state capitals, says the center’s report. But lots of interests who believe they’re getting a raw deal at the statehouse try to get their projects funded directly by Washington — through earmarks, projects of supposed “national significance,” or annual appropriations bills.

“That process has become a runaway train of expectations and perceived entitlements, experts say, as lobbyists go hat in hand to individual members of Congress, assuming that the member will have little or no trouble delivering on the desired project,” says the report

The report says that among lobbyists working to influence the shape of the new bill are the following:

At least two dozen individuals with experience as either House Transportation Committee staff or as personal staff to Transportation Committee members;

More than a dozen individuals with experience on one of the three Senate committees working on transportation policy or as personal staff to committee members;

At least three dozen former House and Senate staffers with experience working on appropriations committees or as aides for members who served on those committees;

Former presidential appointees to various positions in the Department of Transportation, including former Secretary James Burnley;

At least 20 former members of Congress, including one-time House Transportation Committee members Robert Borski, William Lipinski, and Bill Brewster.

The road lobbyists have not gone unchallenged, however. Rail advocates have their own coalitions — most recently OneRail, which includes six organizations with an impressive array of 55 lobbyists on the payroll, says the report.

The Center doesn’t take sides, nor does it condemn the lobbying process outright. The report’s major criticism is that the entire system, including the lobbyists, is not a cohesive one that identifies and pursues a national goal, rather that it creates a series of projects that may or not efficiently benefit the nation. The report argues that the distribution of money from the Highway Trust Fund fails to occur as part of a nationally identified plan of need. The money goes to jobs both urgently needed or barely needed at all and everything in between based, if we believe the report, on whim and political expediency as much as identified need.

“As in past years”, the report says, “the law that emerges this time is at risk of being cobbled together from individual and too often competing interests — states want one thing, cities another, highway backers want this, transit advocates that. Additionally, members of Congress submit their own projects based on knowledge of their own district. Very few projects are mandated as nationally important. Those that are often shouldn’t be. The system, say those closest to it, isn’t much of a system at all.

“On its best days, the federal transportation system serves as the backbone of America’s economy. On its worst days — and there have been plenty of those recently — the system pumps massive sums of money into disjointed, low-priority, and often ill-defined projects.”

The report points out how and from where federal money is actually doled out is among the biggest headaches. “The majority of federal dollars for these various transportation programs actually gets distributed to state and local governments to be spent at their discretion. But that has caused problems. For one thing, wrote the Government Accountability Office last year, ‘Rigorous economic analysis does not generally drive the investment decisions of state and local governments.’ That was an understatement. Most state transportation agencies surveyed by the GAO in 2004 — 34 out of 43 — called political support and public opinion ‘very important’ when investing federal dollars. Only eight states attributed the same importance to cost-benefit analyses.”

The report is available on the Center’s Website, www.publicintegrity.com, and features an interactive map tracking exactly who has hired lobbyists nationwide, including cities, counties, planning agencies, universities, real estate firms and construction companies.

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