WASHINGTON -- As sequestration cuts grew more likely during the first two months of 2013, one industry found profit in budget belt-tightening. Organizations seeking to influence the legislative process spent heavily on lobbyists between the beginning of January and the end of March this year, motivated in part by the possibility that Congress was about to cut off needed spending.
A review of federal lobbying records shows that 577 companies, unions and politically active groups filed to lobby on sequestration during the first quarter of 2013. That was 12 more than registered to lobby on the issue in the final quarter of 2012. The collective cost of that first-quarter lobbying was $134.5 million -- although because those 577 entities listed other legislative items on their lobbying forms, it is impossible to know how much of that total was devoted to the sequester.
Some entities were successful.
Fourteen groups and companies tied to the farming industry, for example, filed to lobby on sequestration during the first quarter of 2013, for a total expense of more than $1.7 million. That list included Perdue Farms, Hormel Foods, Christensen Farms and farming bureaus in several states. They were able to secure a measure to exempt the Agriculture Department's meat inspectors from furloughs.
Twenty-one companies and unions tied to the airline industry filed to lobby on sequestration in the first three months of this year, at a price of more than $7.2 million. The list included JetBlue, American Airlines, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Airlines for America, and the AFL-CIO, which represents Federal Aviation Administration workers. They were able to reverse furloughs for air traffic controllers during the second quarter of 2013. (Again, it's unclear how much of that money from the farming and airline industries went specifically for lobbying on sequestration and how much was spent on other legislative items.)
For many other sectors, the lobbying expenditure was mainly money flushed down the drain.
In total, 68 counties, cities and city departments filed to lobby on sequestration during the first quarter of 2013, at a cost of more than $1.48 million. The list included St. Louis, Las Vegas and Boise, Idaho; the counties of Miami-Dade, Sonoma in California and Polk in Iowa; and two cities in Texas -- McKinney and New Braunfels -- that were worried about the FAA's contract tower program.
On March 1, 2013, with Congress unable to agree on a budgetary replacement, sequestration went into effect, forcing $85 billion in cuts to federal spending by the end of the fiscal year. The money spent by those towns and counties to mitigate the sequester had done little more than pay the rent and salaries at various D.C. lobbying shops.
In interviews with The Huffington Post, officials at a half-dozen entities that lobbied on sequestration mitigation described the process as a lengthy series of frustrations. Lawmakers would privately express sympathy for their projects, only to say that their public posture had to be in support of budget cuts. Others on Capitol Hill recognized the severe impact of the cuts but overestimated Congress' willingness to address the matter.
"When we talked to folks on the Hill, what we really encountered was the disbelief that it would ever happen. 'Why are you even talking to us about this?' In July of 2012, we had a lobby day. We went to the Hill with a sequester fact sheet, and honestly it was like people were rolling their eyes. They were like, 'This is just not going to happen,'" said Sue Nelson, vice president of federal advocacy at the American Heart Association and a onetime aide to former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "My concern was that I just knew from my time on the budget that it was going to be hard for this not to happen this time."
Groups like the heart association eventually formed an alliance, the Non-Defense Discretionary Coalition, to harness more lobbying power on Capitol Hill. They pursued a complete replacement of the sequester cuts rather than individual exemptions. One top official with the coalition said he was impressed that no one jumped ship until sequestration hit. But it was still "defensive lobbying" (as Nelson termed it) and insufficient to push Congress to act.
Research institutions were doing defensive lobbying of their own. When sequestration went into effect, the National Institutes of Health had estimated that it would be forced to cut grants by 10 percent, while the National Science Foundation said it would have to reduce the number of new grants by 1,000.
"I think for the most part everyone understood that, absent a larger budget agreement, it was going to be difficult to have a piecemeal approach to the sequester," said Michael Ledford, vice president for client management at the lobbying firm Lewis-Burke Associates, which represents a variety of scientific research organizations and universities. "A lot of political offices wanted to ensure that there wasn't an interruption in that support. But there was too much difficulty figuring out how to extract individual items or exemptions from this bill."
A review of lobbying records reveals that 77 colleges, universities and post-grad schools registered to lobby on sequester-related matters during the first quarter of 2013, with a total expense of $5.3 million (again, not necessarily all on sequester-related matters). The University of Arizona warned lawmakers of a potential $15 million impact that sequestration would have on the school. The University of Kentucky argued that the cuts would hurt basic research and development. Princeton aired concerns about the impact on fusion energy. The University of Pittsburgh warned of harm to biomedical research, while the University of Colorado highlighted the effect sequestration would have on its dental school as well as downtown Denver.
"We certainly lobbied our delegation. We wanted them to understand the impacts these will have in our university and state," said Steve Warren, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies at the University of Kansas. "I can't say it's been encouraging in any way, shape or form. It is something you feel like you have to do so they know what's going to happen."
"The whole idea of sequestration is demoralizing," Warren added. "I don't know if it was especially demoralizing to talk to our delegation. They understood this wasn't going to be good for us at all and that it was, in some respects, going to hurt their states ... On the other hand, they weren't holding out any particular hope that this bill was going to change."