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Lobbying Database Reporting Recipe

We’ve made it easier to sift through thousands of lobbying registration disclosures. Here’s a guide for journalists, researchers and citizens looking for stories in the data.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Updated in spring 2018.

It can seem like lobbyists run Washington from behind the scenes. But their work isn’t completely opaque: They’re required to register with the House and the Senate when they lobby for a new client.

Our new lobbying database will help you cover Congress and the organizations that may try to influence lawmakers. We hope this new database will be helpful to a wide variety of people, from informed citizens and civic activists to journalists.

Here’s how to use it.

Interested in who is advocating for Facebook’s interests as Congress considers how to stop Russian interference in future elections? Search for “Facebook” and you’ll see that David Wade/GreenLight Strategies LLC represents Facebook on “congressional investigation” and Blue Mountain Strategies represents the social networking company on issues including “elections integrity.”

Are you responsible for covering the western United States, or the environment, or are you politically active on either subject? The Waters of the United States rule is a hot topic; you’ll find energy, construction and agriculture companies who say they hired lobbyists to influence the “WOTUS” rule by searching “WOTUS” or “Waters of the US.”

You can search by an organization name, a lobbying firm’s name, an individual lobbyist’s name, policy issues or even the name of a Congress member a lobbyist used to work for.

Tax-Related Lobbying Arrangements, 2016 – 2017

At the beginning of 2017, many organizations hired lobbyists to represent their interests as Congress prepared to discuss passing major changes to the tax code. (Source: Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of the Senate)

So who’s lobbying on tax issues? Either search “tax” or visit the Taxation issue page. You’ll find McGuireWoods representing Southern Co., a power company, and Altria, a tobacco company, on issues like “tax reform” and “taxation of multinational corporations.” On that issue page, you’ll also find a chart of lobbying registrations filed over time — the number of clients hiring new lobbyists each quarter to represent them on a given issue. That’s one reason why there was a sudden spike in new tax-related lobbying arrangements at the beginning of the Trump administration: With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, a tax bill was likely to come up, so companies wanted to influence it.

Beyond taxation, each of 79 issues has its own page.

Where the Data Comes From

The data, including issue categories like “taxation,” comes from two forms that lobbying firms — or organizations that hire in-house lobbyists — are required to file under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. The forms are called LD-1 and LD-2, and they are collected by the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. For more details, you can read the Clerk of the House’s guide to the lobbying disclosure rules.

Those two offices release these forms online as they receive them. We update the data daily, from big archives of XML files. The forms are published online individually, too. You can check our work by clicking the “Original Filing” link on each disclosure page to see the form presented visually, like this one. We show almost all the fields from these forms, excluding firm/client addresses, related organizations and related foreign entities — we’ve organized it in a way that we think is easier to understand for researchers, activists and journalists.

Lobbyists handing in the form also have to list the specific issues they plan to lobby on — that’s the “congressional investigation” tag that one of Facebook’s lobbyists cited. These can be as abstract as “tax reform” but can also get specific, like this disclosure from the Investment Program Association, which says it will be lobbying on “Department of Labor definition of fiduciary for purposes of ERISA” and “H.R. 10, Financial CHOICE Act of 2017.” When lobbying registrations cite a specific bill, our app will link you to that bill.

The forms also list the individual people doing the lobbying. If one of those lobbyists used to be a member of Congress, works as a congressional staffer, or has had one of a small set of positions in the executive branch in the last 20 years, the lobbyist is required to disclose that. The term of art for such lobbyists is “covered,” because they’re covered by a provision of the lobbying disclosure law. Covered lobbyists are required to file a form called an LD-203 with their contributions to political campaigns, candidates, committees, etc. This data is not included in our database. You can find it here at Open Secrets.

The LD-2, another form that the law requires lobbyists to file each quarter, says how much they spent, which federal agencies they lobbied and noting any changes to the issues or lobbyists involved. The updates also include the approximate amount of money spent each quarter on lobbying efforts. The data from these forms can provide a wealth of information about changes in an organization’s priorities — or even provide a window into changes they didn’t anticipate. While The New York Times reports that Major League Baseball was blindsided by a facet of the tax reform bill that may tax teams whenever a player is traded, the piece of the bill about which the league lobbied pertained to stadium bonds.

Here are some ways you might use the lobbyist database for research and journalism:

  • Local companies: Big companies headquartered in spots across the country almost inevitably have hired lobbyists, whether they are car companies in Detroit or airlines in Atlanta. That may telegraph their future moves and concerns: trade agreements, maybe, or looming pension obligations.

  • Who your senators and representatives’ former staffers are now lobbying for: You’ll want to type in the name of the legislator. For instance, searching “Burr” will surface lobbying by former employees of North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr. You may need to tweak what you search for if the member has a common name, like searching for “(Sen OR Richard) AND Burr” to avoid finding lobbyists named Burr. If a member of Congress is particularly powerful on an issue on which large changes are proposed — like taxation — that lobbyist may attract clients based on their perceived influence on their former boss.

  • Locally resonant issues: Like dairy issues, for example. Think broadly. Dairy legislation affects school lunch requirements, import rules and whether almond milk gets to be called “milk” on the label.

  • Local government: City and county governments often lobby Congress for funding for projects like mass transit and libraries.

If you’re researching an industry, here are some types of information you can find:

  • Search for companies on your beat. Try searching for variations on their corporate names. So, if you cover Google, you’d want to search for Waymo and for Alphabet, too. Don’t forget about trade associations and coalitions, such as CropLife or the 21st Century Privacy Coalition. (We hope to soon include lists of “affiliated organizations” — like funders — of these sorts of groups.)

  • Who companies hire to represent them in Washington: An organization that has hired a lobbyist with connections to a powerful legislator — maybe a committee chairman — may do this to try to affect measures the legislator will oversee or influence.

  • Former regulators: High-ranking employees of executive branch agencies have to disclose their former positions, too. Searching for the names of agencies that regulate your area of interest may lead you to former employees.

  • Former lobbyists: A former in-house lobbyist for a pesticide industry group was appointed to lead a deregulatory team at the Department of Agriculture, a ProPublica article found.

  • What else are companies on your beat lobbying on? Lots of companies lobby on issues that could seem outside their main area of focus. For instance, many newspaper companies lobby on pension issues.

And here are some more details you’ll want to know:

Whether lobbying firms have to file registrations is complicated. The registration is for the pairing of a lobbying firm (or a self-employed lobbyist) and a client. Lobbyists often represent multiple clients and clients sometimes have multiple sets of lobbyists at the same time. Lobbying firms may even contract out work on behalf of a client.

A lobbyist is only required to register for their representation of a given client if all three of these conditions are met:

  • Their firm earns at least $3,000 for that client in a quarter — or, alternatively, if the lobbyist is employed by an organization to lobby on that organization’s behalf, if their company spends more than $13,000 on lobbying expenses in a quarter.

  • The lobbyist has made two or more “lobbying contacts,” that is, attempts to influence government officials.

  • At least 20 percent of the time the lobbyist spends working for that client — whether doing lobbying, analysis, strategy, legal work or anything else — is lobbying.

It’s possible some people or organizations that seem to be lobbying might not qualify. For instance, former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski, who has formed a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, has not registered as a lobbyist because he maintains his activities don’t meet the legal description.

Because like all paperwork, these disclosures can contain errors — and because of a lag time between when a lobbying relationship changes and when that change has to be reported — you will, of course, want to verify if a lobbying relationship still exists by reporting it out.

If you’re interested in doing an analysis of a large number of these disclosures, you can download bulk data here.

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