Ask a Lobbyist: The Paper Chase
Every week, our Anonymous Lobbyist answers your questions about how laws get made and why they probably shouldn't. If you have a question about the dirty business of doing business in Washington, ask her.
Do large companies typically lobby directly out of their own DC shop with their own people, or funnel money to PACs to do it for them and make the paper trail a bit more difficult to follow? Or both? Does it vary by industry and/or a given company's PR? By bill?
Well, technically, political action committees don't lobby. Legally, they're not allowed to. They exist for the purposes of collecting small individual political contributions from "like-minded" individuals for redistribution to political candidates. So, a union, company or a trade association can have a PAC but they can't give corporate money to it, pressure employees or members to do so or solicit/accept funds from people that are in no way connected to the company (though unconnected PACs can solicit whomever they want). And the paper trail isn't at all difficult to follow, since PACs have to disclose their contributors who give more the $200 and all campaign donations. This kind of info is actually more accessible (currently) than lobbying info, which is only available from the Senate (not the House) twice a year after they finish scanning reports in and only contain vague descriptions of issues and the registered lobbyists working on them (but not who they're talking to specifically). FEC filings are due quarterly and are very detailed.
What a company or association PAC can do is gain some sort of access or recognition by a Member. So, technically, it's not lobbying, but a Member is more likely to remember your name/company if he cashed your check or if you managed to corner him at some campaign event at the Superbowl or the Capitol Grille.
As for the rest of your question, most large companies have a DC lobbying presence and lots of them contract out at least some of the work to big lobbying shops. Generally, if they have the money to do those, they have PACs as well. Big trade associations (and the unions, natch) have PACs too and use a mix of in-house staff and hired guns to do part of their lobbying. Everyone else has kind of a mix of in-house and farmed-out lobbying, as they feel the situation requires, though the big issue advocacy groups have mostly in-house (since they "believe" in their issue and find us lobbyists incurably uninterested
in cutting them a break for being idealistic). It's not really issue dependent, though a big issue of great importance to a company or that's big money/media attention will tend to attract more lobbyist attention than your average earmark.
Very few companies have no presence in Washington, if only because at some point in the last 20+ years, someone scaled back (or neglected to establish) their presence in Washington and then got screwed and everyone learned that it doesn't matter how much money you can spend in a couple of months on an issue -- if you aren't here, you are getting screwed. Microsoft is a great case for this, as they had virtually no Washington presence until after their antitrust case was going south, and then spent money like it was going out of style to virtually no avail.
If I had a pet issue, and I wanted a lobbying firm to help me get it noticed by members of congress or the executive branch, how much does that cost? Like, what kind of attention for an issue does $15,000 vs. $150,000 vs. $1,500,000 vs. $15 million? Is it more expensive if it's already a hot button issue or a personal bit of interest (say, funding building of bridges or getting a certain tax burden relieved)?
Well, $15,000 to a high-tier lobbying group is pretty much pocket change -- you might get an small appropriations lobbying group to help you get a line-item for that amount, but it won't get you too much further than that unless you're just joining a coalition or having someone respond to Federal Register notices. Contracts typically start (and I mean start as in, not at a top firm or on a significant issue) at $5,000-$10,000 per month, depending on the issue and time required of the lobbyists at a firm and go from there. Keep in mind, lobbying is a multi-billion dollar industry -- 2.28 billion in 2005, not including grassroots or state-level lobbying, to be exact. Lobbyists and lobbying firms didn't get rich by charging $15,000 a pop (or by paying the more junior lobbyists particularly well).
But, it really does depend on the issue. One-off earmarks is kinda low-end lobbying, and asking a lobbyist to work an issue that a lot of others are working can be reasonably inexpensive, since your lobbyist can rely on a large number of people to move a particular ball/bill forward and then claim credit for the results when he tries to up-sell you next year. But if you want a lot of attention quickly for a random issue that requires us to get off our asses and actually do something, it does tend to get kind of expensive for you, let alone if you want to actually, you know, affect policy. That's definitely a multi-year proposition, and I think we should really talk about a multi-year contract.