Top recipients of federal bailout money spent more than $10 million on political lobbying in the first three months of this year, including aggressive efforts aimed at blocking executive pay limits and tougher financial regulations, according to newly filed disclosure records.
The biggest spenders among major firms in the group included General Motors, which spent nearly $1 million a month on lobbying, and Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, which together spent more than $2.5 million in their efforts to sway lawmakers and Obama administration officials on a wide range of financial issues. In all, major bailout recipients have spent more than $22 million on lobbying in the six months since the government began doling out rescue funds, Senate disclosure records show.
The new lobbying totals come at a time of mounting anger in Congress and among the public over the actions of many bailed-out firms, which have bristled at attempts to cap excessive bonuses and have loudly complained about the restrictions placed on hundreds of billions of dollars in government loans. Administration officials said this week that top officials at Chrysler Financial turned away a $750 million government loan in favor of pricier private financing because executives didn't want to abide by new federal limits on pay.
The reports revived objections from advocacy groups and some lawmakers, who say firms should not be lobbying against stricter oversight at the same time they are receiving billions from the government through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP.
"Taxpayers are subsidizing a legislative agenda that is inimical to their interests and offensive to what the whole TARP program is about," said William Patterson, executive director of CtW Investment Group, which is affiliated with a coalition of labor unions. "It's business as usual with taxpayers picking up the bill."
But several company representatives said yesterday that none of the money borrowed from the government has been used to fund lobbying activities — though there is no mechanism to verify that. Financial firms have successfully quashed proposed legislation that would explicitly ban the use of TARP money for lobbying or campaign contributions.
'Very complicated policy debates'
GM spokesman Greg Martin said that maintaining a lobbying presence is vital to ensure that the automaker has a say when major policy decisions are made. "We are part of what is arguably one of the most regulated industries, and we provide a voice in very complicated policy debates," Martin said.
According to quarterly lobbying reports that were due Monday, more than a dozen financial firms and carmakers that have received TARP assistance spent money on lobbying during the first three months of this year. After Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, top lobbyists included American Express, Wells Fargo Bank, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.
Most of the companies spent less on lobbying this year than they did during the first quarter of 2008. J.P. Morgan, for example, spent $1.43 million in early 2008, compared with $1.31 million this year. Others, however, showed increased spending, including Capital One Financial, which doubled its quarterly lobbying expenditures to more than $400,000.
The lobbying records do not yet include campaign contributions by corporate lobbyists. Bank of America, for example, which spent $660,000 on lobbying in the first quarter, also gave more than $218,000 in campaign contributions through its PAC, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The Citigroup lobbying report provides a glimpse of the troubled company's interests in Washington, including credit card rules, student loan policies, and patent and trademark issues. Citigroup chief executive Vikram S. Pandit and other company officials lobbied fiercely against a House bill approved in March that would have placed a 90 percent tax on bonuses for traders, executives and bankers earning more than $250,000 at firms that had been bailed out by taxpayers. The proposal stalled in the Senate.
Citigroup spokeswoman Molly Meiners said the company "specifically prohibits the use of TARP funds for lobbying-related activities" and said the funds "are subject to an oversight and approvals process."
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.