Follow the Money Hard money. Soft money. Lobbying money. Which buys the most influence in Washington? FORTUNE's Power 25 survey attempts an answer and ranks the top lobbying groups.
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum Reporter Associate Natasha Graves

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Looking down on Washington (is there any other way?), the common view is that beneath the surface of benevolent democracy seethes a crass commercialism. A little campaign cash from your neighborhood interest group, and presto! you've got instant corruption. Such is business as usual inside the Beltway. Isn't it?

Not necessarily. What would happen if clout in the capital could not be bought so easily? What if our casual revulsion at our top politicians was as exaggerated as their own hyped-up rhetoric? What would we do if our congressional representatives weren't the knaves and reprobates we expect them to be? That would be disappointing, no doubt, but it would also be news.

Nobody needs to be told that Washington is a peculiar place. But FORTUNE's 1999 survey of the capital's most powerful lobbying organizations reveals a new level of peculiarity. You would expect the most powerful lobbying groups to also be the most popular ones. Votes, after all, are the coin of the realm, and elections are fundamentally congeniality contests. But this time around one of the most consequential lobbies was one of the least beloved. The standout in this year's poll of capital insiders is the prickly pear of influence peddlers, the National Rifle Association (see Under the Gun). Despite being under constant attack in the wake of school shootings around the nation, the NRA has managed to rise by two ranks in each of the past two years, until it is now tied for No. 2 in FORTUNE's Power 25 ranking, just behind the perennial No. 1, the American Association of Retired Persons. Even more amazing is that the gun lobby is ranked No. 1, ahead of the AARP, by lawmakers and congressional staffers, the people who really know.

Everyone also knows that money talks in Washington (and FORTUNE's survey doesn't challenge conventional thinking there). What isn't obvious, certainly to political professionals, is what method of legal bribery speaks the loudest. FORTUNE used its annual mail-in poll of Washington insiders to find out. We sought to discover what kinds of access buying yields the most influence. Is it true, for instance, that influence can be rented with a simple PAC contribution or a few hundred thou to the political party of your choice? Is it correct to believe that an interest group's swat in the capital is directly proportionate to the size of its political bank account? The answers may surprise you.


Sad to say, no one disputes that money buys influence in Washington. The only question is what kind of spending buys the most. FORTUNE used its Power 25 survey this year to determine an answer. The winner is a surprise: lobbying expenditures, the oldest, most straightforward, unglamorous, and inoffensive type of influence peddling. Plenty of ink and rhetorical bile have been spilled lately about two more nefarious kinds of influence buying: direct giving to candidates, usually through political action committees (PACs), and indirect contributions to the national parties, so-called soft money. But according to the FORTUNE survey, the more money a group spent on its plain old lobbying efforts in Washington, the more influence it wielded. "We couldn't find any direct relationship between campaign donations and clout," said Mark Mellman, one of FORTUNE's pollsters. "The only place we could find a modest correlation with influence was in spending on lobbying."

This is the third year FORTUNE has polled Washington insiders--lawmakers, lobbyists, and congressional and White House aides--to determine which trade associations, labor unions, and interest groups have the clout to get things done. You'll find a list of the Power 25 on the following page; rankings for the rest of the groups we tested, as well as the survey's methodology, are on our Website, This year we focused our inquiry on money in politics. FORTUNE's pollsters, the Mellman Group, a Democratic firm, and Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm, asked participants to rate not just the lobbying groups that scored well in our previous surveys, but also dozens of other organizations that qualified as major money players: any group with a PAC that gave at least $1 million or contributed $100,000 or more in soft money during the last election. We also tested any group that spent $2 million or more on federal lobbying last year.

The result is a rare, empirical examination of what provides the most bang for the buck in Washington. For instance, the top five groups spent an average of $3.1 million a year on lobbying, vs. $900,000 for the bottom five. The amount those groups contributed to candidates or to parties, on the other hand, was all over the lot. The survey couldn't determine what kinds of lobbying were most effective--whether, say, Washington-based lobbyists were the key to clout or if average voters agitating from the grassroots made the most difference. "There are lots of routes to influence in Washington," says Mellman. "The best route for any interest group depends on its resources and the environment in which it's working."

The survey did reveal a new set of winners and losers among Washington power brokers. The most surprising ascent belongs to the National Rifle Association (tied for No. 2). Five of the Power 25 groups were from organized labor, the largest number of unions since the survey began. A newcomer this year was the United Auto Workers union (No. 24). Rejoining the list after an absence last year were the National Governors' Association (No. 12) and two more unions, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (No. 22) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (No. 23). The rise of the unions is good news for Al Gore, who hopes to win the Democratic presidential nomination on the back of labor support.

Four groups disappeared from the Power 25, including two from the insurance industry, which has been caught up in the turmoil in banking and financial services. The Independent Insurance Agents of America fell from No. 12 last year to No. 26. The American Council of Life Insurance slipped from No. 23 to No. 30. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (No. 27) also is no longer in the top echelon, ending the presence of any veterans' groups in the Power 25. The Christian Coalition experienced the biggest fall from grace. For the past two years it ranked No. 7; this year it fell to No. 35. The drop probably resulted from a shakeup in top management that followed the departure of its charismatic executive director, Ralph Reed. The Coalition apparently was so eager to hide its decline that Randy Tate, who was once Reed's successor but is now the group's top lobbyist, admitted that he filled out a FORTUNE questionnaire for another Coalition employee without her knowledge. FORTUNE disqualified two of the Power 25 surveys faxed in by Tate's office.

Respondents identified their party affiliations, and our pollsters calculated separate rankings for each political party. The Democrats' list included another union, the American Federation of Teachers, as well as Emily's List, a bundler of donations to Democratic, pro-choice women candidates. The Republican 25 included two stalwart trade associations, Associ-ated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. Interestingly, partisan analysis produced a different No. 1 for Republicans and Democrats. AARP, the senior citizens' lobby, is the Democrats' top choice and the overall No. 1 for the third year running. But among Republicans, AARP is No. 2 after the National Federation of Independent Business, the small business lobby. Clout in the capital is an ever-changing commodity.