WASHINGTON As of June, there were 12,553 federal lobbyists registered in Washington, down from 14,800 at the end of 2008, and well below a record 15,137 in 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks such activities.
Experts say the total number of people engaged in non-covered lobbying activities such as grassroots initiatives and advertising may be seven times that high.
Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which was amended in 2007, individuals must register as lobbyists if they make two or more contacts with covered officials and spend more than 20 percent of their time trying to influence legislation. Those reports are due every six months.
Those rules clearly leave a huge gray area for people who are seeking to influence federal policy, said James Thurber, who heads the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.
Current law requires registered lobbyists to file quarterly reports about any contacts with lawmakers or government officials. But lobbyists do not have to report a contact if the meeting was initiated by someone else, not them.
Company chief executives also generally do not register as lobbyists, but often meet with lawmakers and government officials and clearly have a strong interest in affecting federal policy, he said.
The same is true for state and local government officials.
Thurber says the Lobbying Disclosure Act does not capture massive marketing efforts undertaken by special interest groups and corporations, grassroots initiatives, survey research or even the publication of magazines by groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
"It's a much bigger industry than the federal registry of lobbyists shows," said Thurber, who estimates that a much better count of the people engaged in lobbying in Washington would be around 90,000 -- not including support staff.
Industry executives, congressional aides and lobbyists say some companies and special interest groups have terminated the lobbyist status of people on their staffs in the wake of tighter ethics rules imposed by the Obama administration.
But it is difficult to get good data, since congressional offices do not keep a running count of terminations.
Lee Mason, director of nonprofit speech rights at OMBWatch, said his own review of the congressional lobbyist database showed 1,836 terminations in the fourth quarter of 2008, before Obama took office, but when it was already clear he planned to crack down on lobbying, 1,662 terminations in the first quarter of 2009, and 1,207 terminations in the second quarter.
Mason said it was not clear if those data reflected a true count of individuals who had stopped lobbying, and noted that the data also gave no indication about their motivation.
He said the database should be revamped to allow easier tracking of any terminations. "If transparency is the intent of the order, then this search engine ought to be made more functional," he said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Diane Craft)