WASHINGTON - A decadelong boom for corporate lobbyists in Washington is showing signs of slowing, just as tougher congressional rules threaten to muffle the multibillion-dollar industry even more next year.
The new rules mandate more detailed disclosure of lobbying activities, industry oversight by the Justice Department, and penalties of up to $200,000 for violations. They will force corporations and trade groups to provide more precise spending records and to take a harder look at who's lobbying for them.
Reports for spending in the second half of 2007 are due by Feb. 15. But under the new rules, which take effect Jan. 1, lobbyists and companies must now file quarterly reports.
The lobbying changes are being made as corporate spending habits appear to be shifting. Since the late 1990s, total expenditures grew by about 80 percent and, in some years, at an annual clip of 12 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks such expenses.
Lobbyists' river of cash hit record levels in 2006, as its two main tributaries, corporations and trade associations, helped raise the high-water mark to a record $2.63 billion in reported spending.
Corporations and trade groups accounted for roughly 70 percent of the total. Unions, professional associations, and other organizations constituted the remaining 30 percent.
But in the first six months of 2007, spending - based on disclosure reports filed with Congress - reached $1.34 billion, only 2.3 percent higher than the same period last year.
That is still an impressive amount of influence, coming in from myriad sources, to monitor. The new rules were created to do that.
"The increased precision in the reporting requirements may reduce the overall amount that is reported because currently people are overreporting lobbying income and expenses," said attorney Craig Engle, a registered lobbyist with Arent Fox LLP.
He expects a smaller community of lobbyists with a slightly slower spending rate.
That prediction isn't shared across the industry. Several analysts and lobbyists said that no one really knows what impact, if any, the rules will have on spending. Some analysts said lobbyists might expand their repertoire to activities they aren't required to disclose, such as "grass-roots" campaigns and advertising.
Because lobbyist activity largely follows congressional priorities, annual spending predictions can be difficult. But specialists say several factors, such as market saturation, can't be ignored.
Much of the past decade's explosion can be traced to a need for better representation, said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political science professor and specialist on interest groups. Now that most trade groups and corporations are well represented, he said, Washington might have too many lobbyists.
Former Clinton administration official Jack Quinn, who cofounded one of Washington's most influential lobbying outfits, Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC, said it stands to reason "almost arithmetically" that the industry is reaching a limit.
"But, look, there's a lot of business in the field," he said. "There's a lot to be done."
The new rules - an outgrowth of corruption scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several US lawmakers - are designed to enhance transparency, not curb the practice.
James Thurber, an American University professor who teaches government, calculated that about 84,000 people work in the business - including lobbyists, their staff, pollsters, and others - which, he contends, is the third-largest Washington industry behind government and tourism.