Which federal agencies do lobbyists target most?

Since 1998, more than $41 billion has been spent by companies, unions and other organizations to lobby federal agencies and the U.S. Congress. In 2013, more than 9,900 lobbyists spent $3.23 billion trying to influence law writers and policy makers. But which agencies do they target most?

To answer that, we took a look at the 10 agencies that received the most filings per year. By law, lobbyists must file their activities four times annually. While the rules around reporting are dense, the reports must include the lobbyists’ estimated income and expenses, their client’s name and position, and the specific issues lobbied.

“We can’t measure how much money is being spent on each issue, each agency, each piece of legislation, but looking at filings is a sign of activity,” said Russ Choma of the Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s a sign of how much effort is being put in.”

While anyone who petitions the government or contacts their member of Congress is technically functioning as a lobbyist, professional lobbyists are mainly lawyers, often as part of a firm, who are paid to influence legislators. Lobbying activities can include researching and presenting information to congressional staff, meeting with members of Congress and agency officials, arranging testimony for congressional hearings, and creating advertising campaigns.

The more clients a lobbyist has, the more reports they will file. And the more important an issue is, the more clients — including lawmakers and staff members — a lobbyist will see to try to influence. And while these reports don’t necessarily capture the full picture of the lobbying activity happening at of a federal agency — there’s more going on than legally has to be reported — they do give us a good idea of the trends.

What’s the short answer to ‘which agencies get lobbied the most’? It depends on what major issues are being discussed on the Hill. Of the nearly 250 agencies tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics, it’s hardly surprising that the ones responsible for making the laws, the U.S. House and Senate, top the list at No. 1 and 2, respectively, of the 10 most-lobbied government bodies every year since 1998, according to filings.

But after the legislature, agencies dip in and out of various rankings year after year — sometimes falling off the list entirely — as different issues come up.

“Whenever you have any issue or situation that drives any sort of legislative activity, you’re going to have a correlating uptick in lobbying activity,” said Danielle Staudt, executive director of AGRP.

The Environmental Protection Agency fell steadily down the list from 1998 to 2003, when it dropped off the top 10. But since 2008, it’s been climbing and is currently ranked as the No. 4 most-lobbied agency.

“It’s not surprising during a period of time in which most environmental rules were pretty stifled, it wasn’t a good expenditure or use of time for lobbyists to go visit that agency,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. She also noted the uptick for Health and Human Services was likely due to the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t anticipate that going down anytime soon,” she said, referring to the fact that the law is not yet fully implemented.

In general, the ups and downs can be attributed to major legislation and what administrations are trying to pass.

“You’ll see general stuff, like the increase of lobbying of agencies after the Recovery Act passed in 2009, where all of a sudden the agencies had a full fiscal year of federal funding and had to get it out the door,” said Richard Gold, a partner at the firm Holland & Knight. “And you’ll see continued increases in the domestic agencies after 2010 when appropriations earmarks went away and grants became the main vehicle in town, so to speak, for federal funding.”

A couple of notes about the data: These reports are based on registered lobbyists who are required to file. Data for 2014 is so far incomplete as it only includes the first quarter. Second quarter records will be made available sometime in July after the quarter ends June 30. The “undetermined” category that shows up in 2007 and 2008 are the result of a tagging error from the Senate Office of Public Records, despite that tag not appearing on the reports. So while not “real,” they effectively bump an agency off the top 10 list for those two years. Because only the top 10 are available, we decided to leave the undetermined category in, rather than leave those spots blank. The methodology is described here.