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Lobbying funds spiral to $2.4b

General Electric tops corporate list of spenders

WASHINGTON -- General Electric Co. spent $21.5 million last year trying to influence the US government, the most of any corporation, as total lobbying costs rose even as Congress began looking at ways to rein in such activities.

Lobbying spending by corporations, trade associations, and other interest groups rose to a record $2.4 billion. GE's costs were third overall behind the US Chamber of Commerce, which spent $38.9 million, and the senior-citizens' advocacy group AARP, which spent $36.3 million. PoliticalMoneyLine, a Washington group that tracks lobbying, compiled the figures based on reports to Congress.

Last year's lobbying costs were 14 percent higher than the $2.1 billion spent in 2004 and 50 percent higher than the $1.6 billion spent in 2000, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. Federal discretionary spending rose by 57.4 percent to $967.9 billion in 2005 from $614.8 billion in 2000, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

``As long as there's more money, there's going to be a need for people in Washington to be hired to get it," said John Feehery, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America and a former spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

During 2005, the Justice Department was investigating Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to fraud and conspiring to corrupt public officials. Congress also began considering legislation to increase disclosure of lobbying activities.

The increase in lobbying spending ``shows you how important it is that there be the proper kind of disclosure, transparency, rules and regulations so you don't see abuses," Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said in an interview.

Shays and Massachusetts Democrat Martin T. Meehan have proposed legislation that would require lobbyists to disclose the money they raise for lawmakers, bar lawmakers from taking gifts and free meals, and prohibit groups that lobby from funding lawmakers' trips.

The Senate and House of Representatives thus far have decided against eliminating most lobbyist-funded perks, though the Senate voted to ban meals paid for by lobbyists. Both houses passed separate measures that would require increased reporting of lobbyists' spending.

Political science professor Rogan Kersh, who teaches courses on lobbying at Syracuse University in New York, said companies believe their efforts buy them a share of federal spending.

``They seem to have made a calculation if we invest this much, we'll get a cut of that federal pie," Kersh said. ``They're making a rational economic decision."

Federal contracts for General Electric, based in Fairfield, Conn., rose to $3.8 billion during the two years ending Sept. 30, 2004, the last period for which figures are available.

GE, the world's second-biggest company by market value, got $2.8 billion in federal contracts during the same period ending in 2000. GE spent $16 million on lobbying in 2000.

With gasoline prices rising, GE is working with the Energy Department to develop more powerful wind turbines, look at hydrogen fuels, and research cleaner ways to use coal for power, said GE spokesman Peter O'Toole.

``Our expertise is married pretty well to what the federal government is interested in," he said.

O'Toole said there was no connection between the increase in federal contracts and the increase in lobbying.

``We work in a lot of different industries," O'Toole said. ``So it's a way to make sure that you're included at the table when decisions are made."

The fourth- and fifth-largest overall spenders on lobbying were the American Medical Association, with $19.2 million, and the US Telecom Association, which spent $16.8 million.

AT&T and Northrop Grumman Corp. were the sixth- and seventh- largest spenders on lobbying.

AT&T Inc. was formed last year when SBC Communications Inc. bought AT&T Corp. The two companies spent a combined $16.4 million on lobbying in 2005 while seeking government approval of the takeover.

The largest defense contractors are Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp., and Chicago-based Boeing Co.

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