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Return on Lobbying Investment: 22,000%

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There's a reason why lobbying has boomed so much over the last decade. The potential return on investment is just too lucrative to pass up. Some things are easy to quantify, a contract, an earmark, or a direct payment for services. But other things, like tax breaks, can take a little bit more time to figure out (at least for now). For example, a University of Kansas study, to be released today, will show that firms pushing for a "tax holiday" in 2004 received a 22,000% return on their lobbying investment. I'll write that number again: 22,000%. From the AP:

The report details efforts by hundreds of companies in 2003 and 2004 to push through a one-time tax "holiday" that lowered for a year the tax rate they paid on profits earned abroad. All told, U.S. companies saved about $100 billion in taxes, with pharmaceutical behemoths Pfizer and Merck & Co., technology giants IBM and Hewlett Packard, and health products maker Johnson & Johnson among the top beneficiaries.

The study zeros in on 93 firms that spent as much as $282.7 million lobbying on the issue during that period, and ultimately saved a total of $62.5 billion through the tax change. Researchers used publicly available lobbying disclosures filed with Congress and financial statements submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission to compare the amount each company saved with its lobbying expenditures.

"It calls into question what Congress did in 2004," said Stephen Mazza, who conducted the study with Raquel Alexander and Susan Scholz. "It clearly is a very lucrative field for lobbyists. Congress wanted to create jobs, and what they probably did was create jobs for the lobbyists."

This is a pretty outrageous, although entirely predictable, result, pointing to a serious problem in governance. If investment in lobbying is the number one determinant in firm growth, how can we trust policy makers to do what is best for anyone other than those with money to spare on lobbyists? As we have been explaining all week, one way to expose influence and mitigate its excesses is to require the real time disclosure of lobbying contacts, providing more detail as to whom lobbyists meet with and what they discuss.

Another way more transparency could help us all in this area--and particularly acamedia--is the disclosure of key data in a structured format. The above mentioned study used lobbying disclosure data and SEC data to show how the lobbying of the examined firms expanded their worth. We already know that the SEC now requires top firms to submit their SEC disclosures in XBRL. If lobbying disclosures, particularly if they became real time, could be posted in a similar format, this kind of study could be created on a web site, providing near real time results of lobbying return on investment.

Just to drill the point home: 22,000% return on lobbying investment. Yet another case that lobbying needs to be made more transparent.