In terms of lobbying dollars spent, 2010 is looking like a record-breaking year. That may be good news for investors, but for citizens in general, it's definitely not.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbying dollars totaled $1.78 billion in the first half of 2010, topping last year's level by 7.5%. The 2009 total was $3.5 billion. 

Numerous industries have doled out dollars for lobbying. Here are several of the most generous sectors:

Sector

Total Spent So Far in 2010

Health

$267 million

Finance / Insurance / Real Estate

$252 million

Energy / Natural Resources

$243 million

Communications/Electronics

$182 million

Transportation

$121 million

Defense

$70 million

Agribusiness

$63 million

Labor

$23 million

Data: Senate Office of Public Records, as of July 26, 2010.

Why they lobby
Let's drill down to a few representative companies, and see what they're lobbying for:

  • Biopharmaceutical maker Vivus (Nasdaq: VVUS) has posted a loss over the past few years, yet it's still spent $160,000 on lobbying in 2010 so far. At the other end of the spectrum, Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) has spent $6.6 million to date. These companies are eager to maintain (if not extend) their patent protection, and to fight the importation of inexpensive medications.
  • Similarly, trucking specialist YRC Worldwide (Nasdaq: YRCW) has also been unprofitable for several years running, yet it's plowed $400,000 into lobbying so far this year, and $800,000 last year. (For context, that $800,000 represented about 15% of its revenue for the year.) Among other issues, trucking companies have been arguing against the need for increased trucking safety regulations.
  • Another transportation concern, FedEx (NYSE: FDX), has lobbied against the FAA Reauthorization bill, which would increase air safety, but also reclassify its drivers, making it easier for them to unionize. Not too surprisingly, UPS (NYSE: UPS) and the teamsters have lobbied for the bill.
  • While many Americans favored the "public option" in the health-care debate, health insurers such as UnitedHealth (NYSE: UNH) and MedcoHealth Solutions (NYSE: MHS) fought against such a measure. Lobbying exerted a significant influence on the reforms we eventually ended up with. While UnitedHealth has spent $1.3 million so far in 2009, it spent a whopping $4.8 million in 2009, the main battle year for health-care reform. MedcoHealth spent $4 million in 2009, and has laid out $1.6 million so far this year. These companies would like to keep more power in the hands of private insurers, maximizing profitability for pharmacy services and themselves.

Clearly, the big bucks companies spend on their lobbying efforts pay off. But the degree to which they succeed may amaze you. Researchers from the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State have found that for each extra dollar a company spends on lobbying, it can gain as much as $200 in market value. From a purely business standpoint, it's hard to argue with lobbying.

Why they shouldn't lobby
However, lobbying could cost us all much more than the dollar amounts that companies spend. If trucking companies succeed in dismissing the need for greater safety in trucking, the public could suffer more accidents on the road. (It's estimated that in 2009, truck accidents killed or seriously injured around 85,000 people.)

If health-care companies sink a public option for health care, millions of Americans may lose out on a government plan that has enough strength to negotiate for the lowest costs. And if lobbyists persuade Congress to extend patent protections, pharmaceuticals will gain several extra years to charge patients brand-name prices before giving way to cheaper generic versions.

The influence these corporate interest groups exert over our elected representatives seems somehow un-American to me. Government is meant to be by and for the people, not the corporations. Even if they have to abide by rules designed to protect their customers, I'd think that excellent companies could still prosper. Corporate lobbying seems like one competitive edge our nation could and should do without.

Let's hear what you think of lobbying. Leave a comment below!

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Pfizer and UnitedHealth Group are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. FedEx, MedcoHealth Solutions, and UnitedHealth Group are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. United Parcel Service is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of UnitedHealth Group. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.