Cities Engage Lobbyists, and Worries Arise
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
A federal investigation is raising new questions about how Congress spends taxpayers' money. A grand jury is looking into a lobby firm and its ties to California Republican Jerry Lewis. He chairs the most powerful spending panel in the House. Subpoenas have gone to local governments in Lewis's district, governments that hired the Copeland Lowery firm. Question number on might be, why does a town need a lobbyist to reach its own member of Congress?
NPR's Peter Overby explains.
PETER OVERBY reporting:
The town of Yucca Valley sits on the high desert in San Bernardino County, California. State Route 62 is the main drag, and Yucca Valley needed federal money to improve it. 62 is the only major road that can carry Marines and their munitions out to combat training at the Marine Corps Air/Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.
Mr. ANDY TAKATA (Yucca Valley Town Manager): The largest Marine base in the United States, about three-quarters the size of Rhode Island.
OVERBY: That's Andy Takata, Yucca Valley's town manager. Getting federal money for Route 62 is just one reason Yucca Valley hired a Washington lobby firm, Copeland Lowery. The town was doing what more and more local governments do, asking for a Congressional earmark.
The local Congressman, Jerry Lewis, wrote a small provision committing a few million dollars specifically for that project. So Yucca Valley is getting the money, but last month it got something else - a subpoena.
A federal grand jury in Los Angeles is investigating Copeland Lowery's connections to Congressman Lewis's office, a probe to cause the Copeland Lowery firm to split up. The grand jury wanted Yucca Valley's lobbying records. Takata says his office boxed up a lot of papers and sent them to prosecutors.
Mr. TAKATA: There's not going to be anything that they're going to be able to use. But if they want it, our books are open.
OVERBY: Even without a subpoena, it seems kind of odd - from a civics class point of view - why should Yucca Valley need a lobbyist when Congressman Lewis runs the House committee that writes the spending bills? Isn't he helping them?
Mr. TAKATA: Yes he is, but you know, a Congressman's schedules, you know, he's got meetings on an hourly basis. We've gone back there to see our Congressman and our Senators and they just don't have the time and nor do we have the staff to have somebody there 24/7 in order to look out for our best interests.
OVERBY: Earmarks for cities, towns and counties have turned into a booming industry on Capitol Hill. An NPR analysis found 500 local government entities with Washington lobbyists last year. More broadly, the website Political Money Line calculates that over the past six years, general lobbying on behalf of local governments more than doubled from $43 million to $93 million.
Mr. RON LOVERIDGE (Mayor, Riverside, California): Cities are engaging in rational behavior.
OVERBY: Ron Loveridge is the longtime mayor of Riverside, California. He says local governments go where the dollars are and that means Congress.
Mr. LOVERIDGE: If there are earmarks being assigned, you want to compete for them. And if you talk to legislators, they will tell you that it is good for you to hire lobbyists who represent your interest.
OVERBY: For Riverside, one big issue is railroad crossings. Trains from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach run through Riverside. As America's appetite for imports goes up, the trains keep getting longer. They can tie up traffic for hours.
Road overpasses would solve the problem. Mayor Loveridge sketches a quick map to illustrate the busiest freight crossing. First, two lines like the legs of a capital A.
Mr. LOVERIDGE: This is a major spine of the city called Magnolia. It's joined by another street called Brockton.
OVERBY: Then a cross-stroke.
Mr. LOVERIDGE: And you have the Union Pacific track goes right through like this.
OVERBY: And here's why they need an overpass.
Mr. LOVERIDGE: One lady was quoted on television saying that she ordered pizza. Somebody delivered pizza to her car and she waited for the train to leave. But the only point is this is a public safety problem, it's an enormous aggravation.
OVERBY: Riverside isn't represented by Lewis. The city has used the Copeland Lowery firm. Many lobby firms work with local governments, figuring out exactly which federal program a lawmaker might tap to help a town or a city.
Critics say these hometown earmarks are changing Congress from a national legislature into some sort of super city council. Scott Lily used to work for Democratic Congressman David Obey on the House Appropriations Committee.
Mr. SCOTT LILY (Former Congressional Aide): Congress simply can't do its Constitutional job if it spends all of its time worrying about which intersections are going to get paved and whether we're going to widen a particular street or put in an interchange someplace.
OVERBY: But the system works for everybody involved. Local governments are getting federal funds, lawmakers are getting the credit and lobby firms are getting paid to make it all happen.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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