Washington  To some Connecticut companies, making sure nothing happens in Washington is just as important as making sure something does.

Take Guilford-based American Cruise Lines, for example. It spent $40,000 last year lobbying Congress not to restore the famous Delta Queen riverboat’s right to navigate the Mississippi River.

Its investment in preventing congressional action was apparently persuasive to Connecticut’s delegation, which voted to keep the aged riverboat tethered to a dock. But the cruise line’s expenditure represents a mere trickle in the river of lobbying money Connecticut businesses have poured into Washington to protect their many  interests.

General Electric, for example, spent nearly $14 million lobbying last year.

Floating competition

Moored in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Delta Queen riverboat is a National Historic Landmark that once ferried presidents up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries. At nearly 100 years old, it is now a floating hotel, but prospective investors hope the stately vessel will take to the water again.

American Cruise Lines, which has riverboats of its own, hired a Washington lobbyist to try to make sure it doesn’t.

According to lobbying disclosure forms filed in the House and Senate, American Cruise Lines hired Washington, D.C.- based Blank Rome Government Relations in August, making an initial payment of $40,000 to derail congressional approval of a bill that would re-impose an exemption to federal shipping law that expired in 2008.

The bill would allow ships with berths and staterooms that accommodate 50 or more passengers and that were built before a maritime safety law was implemented in the 1960s to be exempt until the year 2028 from requirement they be constructed from fire-retardant materials. The exemption was also limited to ships that did not travel on the high seas.

There is only one ship that meets that criteria, and when the exemption expired in 2008, the Delta Queen was forced to dock in Chattanooga and become a hotel.

But efforts to renew the exemption, putting the historic paddleboat back on tour along the Mississippi River, would not be good news for American Cruise Lines, which unveiled its first riverboat on the Mississippi, the 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, last year. This month it announced it is building four more.

Unfortunately for the Connecticut company, the House in September approved the bill that would help the Delta Queen, even as all members of Connecticut’s House delegation voted against it.

But the bill is still pending in the Senate, and Blank Rome Government Relations hopes to sink it there.

More defense than offense

Sometimes lobbyists are hired to fight legislation that would hurt a company, as with American Cruise lines, but most often a lobbyist’s work is “more defensive than offensive,” said Thomas Mann, senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.

“Companies try to avoid costs that could come from legislation or government actions,” Mann said. “The cost of [lobbying] may be high, but it’s a relatively trivial part of the company’s budget.”

That may be true even for Fairfield-based General Electric, which the Center for Responsive Politics says is second to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in money spent on lobbying since 1998. 

According to the center, General Electric and its subsidiaries spent nearly $300 million lobbying in Washington during that time period. This year, with lobbying expenses of nearly $14 million, the company slipped into fifth place.

That’s more than any other company in Connecticut, including fellow lobbying heavy-hitter United Technologies.

According to lobbying disclosure forms, General Electric’s biggest concerns were the federal budget and tax issues —including a bill that would phase out a tax credit for electricity produced from wind. GE produces wind-energy technology.

The company paid two dozen Washington lobbying firms to look out for its interests. But most of General Electric’s lobbying was done by in-house lobbyists who spent $12.3 million from Jan. 1 to Oct. 30 trying to influence Congress.

General Electric declined to discuss its lobbying practices, preferring to issue a statement instead.

“GE is one of the world’s largest industrial and technology companies. We have broad interests that impact healthcare, transportation, consumer products, energy, finance and many other industries,” the statement said.

United Technologies has also hired several of Washington’s top lobbying firms to look out for a range of issues that included the successful defeat of efforts to sell the Pentagon on an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – whose engine is built by Pratt & Whitney. The company’s paid lobbyists also set up high-level meetings with members of Congress concerning the fate of helicopters in the Armed Forces.

Like General Electric, UTC has a robust in-house lobbying shop that spent about $12 million in the first three quarters of this year, concentrating its efforts on tax issues and defense spending.

Marty Hauser, director of  government communications at UTC’s Washington-based lobbying office, said the company spends money to lobby the federal government because it is a main source of income.

“We’ve got several billions of dollars in government contracts… so we think it is important to keep elected officials informed about programs that we work on and what our employees are doing,” he said.

Hauser said some of UTC’s lobbying work is done by outside consultants because they have special skills — and ties to members of Congress.

“It comes down to relationships and expertise,” Hauser said. “Every corporation employs [lobbying firms] for those reasons.”

Most big Washington, D.C., lobbying shops hire former members of Congress or former congressional staffers who, in a “revolving door” relationship, market their access to lawmakers.

Berlin-based Northeast Utilities hired lobbyists to look out for funding for LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), tax issues and cybersecurity. Lobbying filings show the company was also interested in the massive Hurricane Sandy restoration bill, especially its funding of Department of Housing and Urban Development block grants. Company spokesman Albert Lara declined to elaborate.

NU also spent about $1.26 million on in-house lobbying.

Major industry

The Center for Responsive Politics says there were 12,433 registered lobbyists in the nation’s capital last year and that $3.31 billion was spent on lobbying, making it one of Washington’s major industries.

“Lobbyists are experts on how to influence people in Congress, and the federal agencies and companies need them,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the center.

Lobbyists do more than try to win approval of certain bills or try to kill others, Bryner said. They also help draft bills and sometimes persuade lawmakers to drop plans to introduce legislation that would harm a client or modify it to protect a client.

“A lot of times a lot of activity goes on even before a bill becomes a bill,” Bryner said.

Mann of the Brookings Institution called lobbyists a needed commodity.

“Lobbyists have information that members of Congress and their staffs don’t have,” Mann said. “Government needs the information lobbyists have.”

Other Connecticut companies spend less than General Electric, UTC or Northeast Utilities, but they still hire lobbyists.

According to lobbying disclosure reports, Starwood Hotels, headquartered in Stamford, has spent $400,000 on several firms, including DLA Piper. One had the job of helping promote a bill that would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to expedite the visa process for foreign tourists and allow Canadian citizens who are 50 years old or older to visit the United States for up to 240 days a year.

Stanley Black & Decker, the New Britain-based toolmaker, also hired DLA Piper and a couple of other firms to help them with a number of issues, including a school safety bill and proposed new safety standards on table saws.

Praxair, a gas and chemical company based in Danbury, hired three Washington lobbying firms – C2 Group LLC, DS2 Group LLC and FTI Government Affairs – to help them win congressional approval of a bill that allows the federal government to sell its helium reserves. Praxair also spent $490,000 on company-based lobbyists, records show.

While lobbyists can reap results, Mann said it’s also “a mark of [a company’s] size and stature to be represented in Washington,” even at a time partisan gridlock has derailed appropriations bills and other legislation that could be fertile ground for lobbying.

Other Connecticut businesses prefer to be represented by trade associations, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spends more than any other entity on lobbying. In the first three-quarters of this year, it spent nearly $52 million.

Connecticut’s hospitals are represented by the American Hospital Association. The state’s pharmaceutical industry belongs to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), and Aetna and other health insurers belong to America’s Health Insurance Plans, which has looked out for their interests during the health care act debates.

Even associations have lobbyists.

The American Society of Association Executives helps lobbyists at the association lobby.

“If they have questions dealing with Congress we tell them what to do,” said Jim Clarke, the ASAE’s senior vice president of public policy.

One big issue for the ASAE is the new restrictions imposed on government conferences after a series of scandals revealed that agencies were misspending taxpayer money.

“We are making sure that federal employees and our members can still get together,” Clarke said.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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