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The Price Of Persuasion

From the mighty tobacco companies to the tiny Northern Mariana Islands, special interests reported spending $1.17 billion last year to lobby Congress, the White House and the federal bureaucracy, according to the first computerized study of year-end disclosure reports.

The annual price of persuasion in Washington is enough to pay the Army's annual ammunition costs. Or cover the Food and Drug Administration's budget. It's also 16 times the annual payroll of the Baltimore Orioles, the highest-paid team in professional baseball.

In all, companies, labor unions, interest groups and municipalities reported hiring 14,484 lobbyists, an army that outnumbers members of Congress 27-to-1, according to an Associated Press computer analysis of lobbying disclosure reports.

The database, a joint project with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, provides the most comprehensive look at lobbying spending since federal disclosures began two years ago.

The 1997 figures are the latest on record. Next month, special interests are to report their lobbying expenses for the first half of this year.

The most heavily lobbied issues in 1997 were the federal budget, taxes, health, transportation and defense, the analysis showed.

With budget cutbacks increasing competition for federal money, more special interests are turning to professional lobbyists to make their case. Some 42 percent of the lobbyists listed the budget as one of their interest areas.

"There are a lot of groups that depend very heavily on the budget and the appropriations process," said Wright H. Andrews Jr., a partner in the firm of Butera & Andrews and past president of the American League of Lobbyists.

The king of the lobbying crowd in 1997 was the American Medical Association, which reported spending $17.1 million.

The nation's doctor lobby is pressing to give patients and doctors more freedom under managed care health plans, and for legislation to reduce teen smoking.

Also lobbying on anti-smoking legislation was tobacco, beer and food giant Philip Morris, the second-biggest spender at $15.8 million. Part of that was spent trying to persuade Congress to ratify a $368 billion deal between the tobacco industry and a group of state attorneys generals. After the deal was altered to add a $1.10-per-pack tax that the tobacco companies opposed, the Senate shelved it last month.

"What we want to do with our lobbying is make our voice and our view heard," Philip Morris spokeswoman Darienne Dennis said.

Overall, major tobacco industry players reported spending $31.65 million lobbying last year.

But that was only about half as much as the telecommunications industry, which spent $63.96 million. In that industry, several giants are seeking approval for mergers, and local telephone companies and long distance companies are pressing to break into each other's markets.

Bell Atlantic, wich recently merged with Nynex, was the third largest individual spender in 1997 at $14.3 million. The figure also includes the cost of lobbying in state capitals from Augusta, Maine, to Richmond, Va.

Other major categories included the pharmaceutical industry ($59.7 million), oil and gas ($51.7 million), defense ($40 million), the automobile industry ($34.6 million) and business groups ($24.6 million).

Major players in the computer industry, relative newcomers to political giving and influence building in Washington, reported spending about $12 million last year on lobbying. Microsoft Corp., which is battling a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit and a congressional investigation, was among the biggest spenders at $1.9 million.

For all its high profile, Microsoft was outspent in 1997 by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean under fire for bringing in foreign garment workers and paying them less than the federal minimum wage.

Though most of the factories are foreign-owned, the clothing can be labeled, "Made in USA."

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and the Interior Department want the islands to raise their $3.05-per-hour minimum wage to the federal level of $5.15.

The islands, which were seized from Japan during World War II and have 64,000 residents, have enlisted some big-name help to make their case. The islands spent $2 million in 1997 to hire former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., and two heavyweight lobbying firms.

One of them, Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, employs former Senate majority leaders George Mitchell and Bob Dole and former governors Ann Richards of Texas and James Blanchard of Michigan. It reported 128 clients and $18.8 million in lobbying income last year.