Special-interest Spending Surges

Industries ranging from for-profit colleges and electric utilities to some high-tech companies are spending record sums on lobbying to combat federal efforts to tighten regulations of their practices.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), for instance, spent $440,000 on lobbying during the last three months of 2010, more than twice the amount it spent during all of 2009. It is fighting proposed regulations that would stop sending federal aid to these colleges if too many of their students default on their loans or don’t earn enough money to repay them, new lobbying reports show.

At the same time, the association dramatically increased its campaign giving, putting thousands into the coffers of lawmakers who have oversight of their industry.

"This is a fundamental, existential threat to schools, programs and opportunities for students," Harris Miller, the association’s president, said of the Obama administration’s proposed rules, which would also attempt to end misleading recruitment and other practices. Most of the rules go into effect July 1; those linking colleges’ federal aid to their graduates’ income and loan-default rates are scheduled to take effect in 2012.

The escalated spending comes as total federal lobbying dipped to roughly $3.5 billion last year, according to an initial tally by CQ MoneyLine, which analyzes lobbying. The drop, from more than $3.6 billion in 2009 amid the intense debate on the health care law, marks the first time in nearly a decade that spending on lobbying has not increased.

Even so, some industries significantly stepped up their efforts to influence Washington policy as the Obama administration and Congress have proposed new rules that affect them:

•Electric utilities, for instance, spent nearly $134.8 million on lobbying last year, a nearly 50% jump over 2009 levels, according to CQ MoneyLine’s totals. The surge came as Congress weighed climate-change legislation and the Environmental Protection Agency launched plans to regulate the emission of greenhouse gases from power plants.

"It was a very busy year," said James Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for utilities. The institute’s own lobbying hit $13.1 million last year — a nearly 25% increase over 2009. "Everything from climate change to financial reform to federal tax policy and beyond was on the table," Owen said.

•Search-engine giant Google, meanwhile, spent nearly $5.2 million on lobbying last year, an increase of nearly 30% over 2009 levels as the government considers forbidding companies from tracking consumers’ activities across the Internet.

Google spokesman Dan Martin said the company’s lobbying activity has increased as the Internet has "become a bigger part of our lives" and a "bigger part of the debate here in Washington."

Internet giant Facebook spent more than $350,000 in lobbying last year, a nearly 70% leap over 2009, when the social-networking site began lobbying.

For-profit colleges have waged an all-out battle against the package of rules to rein in the industry, which has seen enrollment soar to more than 2.2 million students in 2009 from nearly 673,000 in 2000.

The colleges, which range from universities offering four-year bachelor’s degrees online to schools offering certificates in auto repair, account for nearly 11% of higher-education enrollment, but 43% of student-loan defaults, according to the Department of Education.

"Too many students are graduating from these programs with unsustainable debt and degrees or certificates they cannot use," said Justin Hamilton, a department spokesman.

Miller said it is unfair to compare for-profits to other colleges with fewer low-income and non-traditional students.

APSCU’s political action committee pumped more than $350,000 during last year’s election into the coffers of national parties and congressional candidates. That’s more than three times what the association’s PAC donated to candidates and parties during the previous midterm election for Congress in 2006.

"It is a way of helping show members who support our students that we support them," Miller said.

Among the recipients: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House education panel and an opponent of the Obama administration’s proposed rules. The PAC gave $15,000 to Kline’s fundraising committees in the 2010 election. Democratic lawmakers, including some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, also have opposed the rules.

Kline and nine other House members last year wrote to Education Secretary Arne Duncan objecting to many of the new rules.

Kline spokesman Brian Newell said campaign contributions have no bearing on the congressman’s actions.

"My boss has been a longtime proponent of student choice," he said.

The proposed regulations will drive for-profit colleges out of business, Newell said, when "there’s a need in our country to have young adults more equipped and able to compete in our workforce."


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