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Columnist George Will drew attention to the money former House Speaker Dennis Hastert made from lobbying. Columnist George Will drew attention to the money former House Speaker Dennis Hastert made from lobbying.

Columnist George Will drew attention to the money former House Speaker Dennis Hastert made from lobbying.

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 1, 2015

George Will: We spend more on lobbying than on campaigns

The indictment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert is more striking for what was left out than for the charges themselves. Hastert allegedly paid a man about $1.7 million since 2010. According to press reports, the goal was to hide a sexual encounter that took place decades ago when Hastert was a high school wrestling coach. But the indictment said nothing about a potential act of blackmail. Instead, federal officials charged Hastert with scheming to skirt banking laws and lying to FBI agents about his cash withdrawals.

The missing details have spurred a lot of speculation, but conservative pundit George Will stepped back and focused on how Hastert, who never made much money as a teacher or a congressman, could cover the payments. On Fox News Sunday, Will said it was all about Hastert’s post-congressional career as a lobbyist.

"Big government becomes big by being deeply involved in the allocation of wealth and opportunity," Will said on May 31, 2015. "Lobbyists are important. That's why we spend more money on lobbying than we do on campaigns. They become important precisely because they know how complicated the government is, where the levers and pulleys and widgets are, to make it work. And he made the most of that value."

Will pointed no fingers but said this was "an unfortunate glimpse of how hard government is."

We were intrigued with Will’s comparison of lobbying and campaigns and decided to look into the numbers. We reached out to Will, and while we didn’t hear back, we suspect he based his statement on federal expenditure data.

According to government figures on the Center for Responsive Politics website, Will is correct. Spending on lobbyists exceeds all the money that flows during elections. And the political scientists we reached said on top of that, a lot of lobbying never makes it into the official tallies.

The numbers

In every election cycle since 2008, more money has gone into lobbying at the federal level than into political campaigns. The campaign totals include money tied to candidates, the parties, Super PACs and so-called dark money that largely goes unreported. As this table shows, the pattern holds even in presidential election years. The dollar amounts are in billions.

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Source: Center for Responsive Politics: Campaigns - Lobbyists

This data only covers federal spending. A lot of money goes into lobbying and elections at the state and local levels, too. But while there are some numbers on campaign activities in the states, there is little reporting on lobbying. So we’re limited to comparing the dollars at the federal level.

Hidden lobbying

We contacted several political scientists, and they all said that Will is even more correct than the official numbers show.

James Thurber is director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

"The official count of federal level lobbyists is only the tip of the iceberg," Thurber said. "The number of shadow lobbyists is much greater."

Thurber points to people like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle who offers his services as a strategic adviser and doesn’t show up as a registered lobbyist. But Daschle’s advice can be worth a lot to outfits that do business with the government. Thurber said the focus on lobbying Congress is important, but it misses efforts to shape what happens in the executive branch.

"I say there’s more lobbying going on in the executive branch in terms of procurement and writing regulations," Thurber said.

Tim LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University, estimates that the actual amount of lobbying is double the official count.

Political scientist Jeffrey Berry at Tufts University said lobbying firms only have to disclose legislative lobbying and even that doesn't necessarily include everything in a firm's contract with a client. Berry said a lot of activity flies beneath the radar.

"What goes on at corporate headquarters to support the Washington lobbying office is generally unreported," Berry said. "For trade associations, what’s reported typically does not include what member firms do on instructions from the staff of the trade group. And the list goes on."

Hastert and lobbying dollars

Will noted that Hastert made his real money after he left Congress. While we can’t know Haster’s exact income in his work for the firm of Dickstein Shapiro, he’s listed as a lobbyist on contracts worth many millions of dollars.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2009, Hastert lobbied for three groups with a total contract value of $260,000. By 2013, the total was over $4.5 million. While it dipped the next year, it was still over $1.7 million.

Some of the biggest contracts were for the tobacco company Lorillard and the mining company Peabody Energy. Thurber at American University said Hastert didn’t need to have any particular expertise with tobacco or energy.

"He knew the process inside government, and he knew what role particular people played in that process," Thurber said.

Frank Baumgartner at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said only the highest ranking former members of Congress command top dollar from private interests.

"Either these lobbyists are hoodwinking their clients, or they really are able to open doors that people with lesser experience at the highest levels of Congress cannot open," Baumgartner said.

Our ruling

Will said that more money is spent on lobbying than on campaigns. In terms of the expenditures reported at the federal level, that is correct. In every election cycle since 2008, more money has gone toward lobbying than elections.

The experts we reached said the official lobbying numbers fail to capture a lot of activity.

Will’s statement is accurate. We rate it True.

Our Sources

Fox News, Fox News Sunday, May 31, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, Estimated cost of election 2014, Feb. 12, 2015

National Institute on Money in State Politics, National overview, 2014

Center for Responsive Politics, Lobbying

Center for Responsive Politics, Total cost of elections 1998-2012

Washington Post, Former House speaker Dennis Hastert indicted by federal grand jury, May 28, 2015

USA Today, Official: Hastert paid hush money to hide sexual misconduct, May 30, 2015

New York Daily News, Lobbying in New York hit $210 million in 2013--3rd highest total ever, April 3, 2014

ABC News 10, Nearly $300 million spent on Calif. state lobbying in 2013, Feb. 3, 2014

Email interview, Jeffrey Berry, professor, Department of Political Science, Tufts University, May 31, 2015

Interview, James Thurber, professor, Department of Government, American University, May 31, 2015

Email interview, Tim LaPira, associate professor, Department of Political Science, James Madison University, May 31, 2015

Email interview, Frank Baumgartner, professor, Department of Political Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, May 31, 2015

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George Will: We spend more on lobbying than on campaigns

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