Legislating Under the Influence
The energy industry’s money floods Congress and regulatory agencies.
Long before BP’s Deepwater Horizon well began belching oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP and the rest of the energy industry had turned loose a gusher of cash in Washington, saturating Congress and the federal government’s regulatory apparatus.
In the last decade alone, big energy has pumped more than $2.9 billion into electing and lobbying federal officials and candidates, according to campaign finance and lobbying disclosure reports.
That’s about $5.5 million for each of the 535 seats in the House and Senate.
As energy dollars flow freely in Washington, the development of alternative energy sources proceeds slowly, at best, and the nation’s reliance on energy produced overseas grows deeper. Meanwhile, at the industry’s urging, a 27-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the east coast has been allowed to expire and legislation to cap carbon emissions, pushing oil-gulping industries to find new energy sources and use petroleum more efficiently, has stalled in Congress.
And in the Gulf, what President Obama has called “a scandalously close relationship” between oil companies and the agency that regulates them, looms as a likely contributor to an environmental disaster that is poisoning an entire ecosystem and threatening the nation’s seafood and tourist industries.
Data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reveal that:
Energy interests, including oil and gas companies, electric utilities, mining companies and waste management firms, have contributed more than $337 million to federal candidates and party organizations since 2000. Only the financial sector – banks, insurance companies and other financial firms, has given more.
Oil and gas companies are the energy industry’s most aggressive donors. They’ve contributed more than $154 million to federal candidates since 2000, about 46 percent of big energy’s total donations. Electric utilities have donated more than $104 million and mining interests just over $30 million.
The energy industry focuses its investments in Congress on lawmakers who can most help the industry’s bottom line. Since 2000, big energy has given nearly $110 million to the campaigns of members of four Congressional panels assigned to oversee it. Industry donations to committee members increased nearly 80 percent between 2000 and 2008, amid growing public support for legislation to put new limits on carbon emissions. Big energy also looks out for Congressional leaders; though it’s still early in the current election cycle, the industry has given nearly $3.1 million to campaign committees and political action committees controlled by House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders.
The energy industry generally prefers Republicans, but money follows power. In some elections during the past decade its spending on GOP candidates has been three times that on Democrats. Big energy’s support for Republicans soared during the Bush administration, as Vice President Dick Cheney led an energy task force that actively sought industry input. But after Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, their share of the industry’s donations increased dramatically, and so far in 2010 the GOP is doing only slightly better than the Democrats in attracting industry donations.
During the first quarter of 2010, the energy industry spent more than $3.2 million on lobbying for each day that Congress was in session. That's more than $244,000 per member through the quarter. Among major industries, only health care interests have spent more. For every $1 spent on political campaigns, the energy industry spends more than $7 on lobbying. Since 2000, energy companies have invested nearly $2.6 billion to lobby Congress and the executive branch. The industry’s annual tab for lobbying increased by 159 percent during the decade, as it won passage during 2005 of an energy bill giving $14.5 billion in tax breaks to energy companies, and during 2008 persuaded Congress and then-President George W. Bush to lift a 27-year embargo on offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic.
Employees of and groups tied to BP, the company at the center of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, have donated more than $3 million to congressional election campaigns since 2000. BP also invests heavily in lobbying; the company spent nearly $16 million in 2009 and more than $3.5 million on lobbying during the first quarter of this year.
The Minerals Management Service, the federal government’s supposed watchdog on the industry, has been a longstanding target of energy lobbyists – with devastating results. Since 2006, the number of companies and industry advocacy groups lobbying the agency has more than doubled, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly.(1) Industry lobbyists have paid for gifts, ski trips and golf outings for MMS employees, and a 2008 investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general found that employees at an MMS royalty collection office in Denver engaged in sex and used drugs with energy company representatives.(2)
The energy industry has made a point of adding former MMS executives, along with former Congressional staff members, to its lobbying staffs. While President Obama has ordered federal agencies not to hire anyone involved in lobbying agency officials during the past two years, the “revolving door” from the federal government to the lobbying corps remains open. More than 300 lobbyists now working for oil and gas interests have past connections to federal agencies or Congress. (3)
No sensible person would invest the kind of money the energy industry invests in our government and politics without expecting something in return. And big energy’s investments have helped it secure lax Congressional and regulatory oversight and a host of federal policies that benefit its bottom line.
But as millions of gallons of oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico every day, it’s increasingly clear that the industry’s profits are coming at the nation’s expense. Political leaders who are serious about helping America achieve energy independence need to declare their own political independence, scrapping a system that relies on special interest money to finance their campaigns and replacing it with small donations from working Americans through the Fair Elections Now Act.