Amid last year's epic debates over the health care overhaul and proposed Wall Street regulations, Maryland farmers and environmentalists were engaged in their own dramatic — and often expensive — battle over restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
A bill that would have reinforced the federal government's ability to manage the bay cleanup triggered a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign by farmers who opposed it. Environmentalists who supported the measure responded by ramping up their own lobbying efforts.
"We mobilized our whole organization," said Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which reported a more than fourfold increase in federal lobbying expenses in the first three months of 2010. At the time, he said, his group was "all over" Capitol Hill.
But this year, despite a sharply partisan fight in Congress over federal spending and budget deficits, the pace of lobbying in Washington has slowed. Money spent on lobbying by Maryland companies and nonprofits fell about 23 percent in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the same period last year, according to a Baltimore Sun review of federal lobbying disclosure reports.
A vast array of Maryland interests, including the Bethesda-based defense contractor Lockheed Martin, the Johns Hopkins University, Constellation Energy and nonprofit groups such as Goodwill Industries, all reported spending less — in some cases far less — than last year. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which lost its fight on the bay bill, cut lobbying expenses more than half.
In all, Maryland companies and organizations spent $16 million on lobbying this past quarter, about $5 million less than in early 2010.
Experts say the reduction has been driven by several factors, including divided control of Congress, the ban on lawmaker-directed spending known as earmarks, a still-sluggish economy and regulations adopted by the Obama administration that restrict how lobbyists interact with executive agencies.
But the biggest factor may be that after a year in which lawmakers tackled a series of landmark bills — including health care, energy and financial reform — Congress has so far focused this year on broad budget issues that have not threatened many individual industries.
"The focus has been on the debt and the deficit," said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "I don't think that has really gotten lobbying revved up."
The decline in lobbying by Maryland companies and advocacy groups mirrors a national trend. Special interest groups nationwide spent $827 million on lobbying in the first three months of the year, about a 10 percent decline from the same period in 2010, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The number of registered federal lobbyists also fell during that period, to 10,047 from 11,416 a year ago.
Republicans gained control of the House in the November election and Democrats maintained their hold in the Senate. That political divide means far fewer bills will advance through Congress — a change from the past two years, when Democrats controlled both chambers. Partly because of that, lawmakers are increasingly focused on must-pass measures such as raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit.
One of the most significant measures that drove lobbying last year was the financial regulation bill. The proposal, which President Barack Obama signed into law in July, created new safeguards intended to head off the types of systemwide market failures that led to the economic collapse in 2008.
Baltimore money manager Legg Mason reported spending $260,000 in lobbying in early 2010 as the debate over the legislation raged on. The company's involvement in Washington has declined considerably since then. In the first quarter of this year, it spent $130,000 on lobbying.
"We're obviously still engaged," said Legg Mason spokeswoman Mary Athridge, who said the company hired a financial lobbyist to help navigate the process last year. But once work on the legislation ended, the lobbyist left the company and, she said, "it made sense for us to step down at that point."
Beth Felder, director of federal affairs for the Johns Hopkins University, said the school and hospital were absorbed in the health care debate early last year. The law, which Obama signed in March, will have a significant effect on hospitals, potentially increasing patient loads while changing the way the government pays for people on Medicare and Medicaid.
The school and hospital, which combine their lobbying efforts in Washington, spent $90,000 so far this year, compared with about $110,000 over the same period in 2010, disclosure reports show.
"That was an issue that was really of interest to us," Felder said of the health care law. "Sort of an 'all hands on deck.'"
Still, Felder cautioned against reading too much into any one quarter of lobbying reports. Like other Maryland lobbyists, she noted that the numbers are fluid and are based on many factors. The university's 12-page disclosure report shows that its team has focused this year on research funding, Medicare reimbursement rates and alternatives to animal testing, among other issues.
Lobbying reports are filed every quarter with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House. While they offer insight into the interests of companies and advocacy groups, they are not exhaustive. Organizations with in-house lobbyists, such as Hopkins, do not have to file reports if they spend less than $11,500 a quarter, for instance. Companies also do not state how much they spend advocating on any particular issue, but rather a total for all lobbying.
Though the lobbying industry is still thriving in Washington, it has been under attack in recent years as federal candidates, including Obama, have highlighted past scandals. The White House imposed a two-year ban on hiring lobbyists and then prohibited them from contacting officials on certain projects paid for by the 2009 economic stimulus.
As a result, some lobbyists have either left the industry or found ways to do the job without meeting the requirements for disclosure, said Marlowe, of the lobbyist trade group. For instance, some lobbyists train clients to meet directly with decision makers, avoiding disclosure entirely.
A study last year by the Center for Responsive Politics found that the number of lobbyists who "deregistered" peaked in 2008 — before Obama took office — at 3,627. The group estimates that there are nearly 10,050 active federal lobbyists.
Several Maryland-based companies were reluctant to discuss their efforts in Washington. Lockheed Martin, whose lobbying expenses fell 8 percent to $3.16 million in the first quarter of this year, declined to say what factors drove the drop-off. A spokesman, Jeffery Adams, e-mailed a statement that said Lockheed "has strong interest in national security, homeland security and other issues including education and technology."
Larry McDonnell, a Constellation Energy spokesman, said the company's "consulting firm" expenditures were down by about 23 percent so far this year to $216,000. But, he said in an e-mailed statement, "generally speaking lobbying expenditures are fluid and rise and fall based on the issues, legislative events and the company's business priorities."
Noting the early skirmishes in Congress over the budget, Goodwill Industries President and CEO Jim Gibbons said there was a "wait-and-see period" this year. But as the fights over spending inched closer to a government shutdown in April, Gibbons said his organization's lobbyists stepped up to fight for funding for the Workforce Investment Act. The funding is used by Goodwill to provide job training to tens of thousands of people.
The Rockville-based group reported spending $40,000 on first-quarter lobbying this year, down from $50,000 in 2010. Gibbons predicted that the number would increase when the next set of reports are filed in July.
"Goodwill is more relevant now than ever," Gibbons said. "It's very important for us to … do our best to educate Congress."
Selected first-quarter lobbying expenditures (2011, 2010)
Goodwill Industries: $40,000, $50,000
Johns Hopkins: $90,000, $110,000
Legg Mason: $130,000, $260,000
Lockheed Martin: $3.16 million, $3.46 million
Marriott International: $150,000, $160,000