Cold, hard, foreign cash.

Lobbying has become as much a part of American culture as apple pie, blue jeans, and monster trucks, but it’s not just U.S. companies playing the game. Increasingly, foreign corporations are spending big bucks to push their interests in Washington, D.C., many with the intent of weakening environmental protections — from changing rules on the disposal of hazardous waste to opening more lands to mining and drilling to clearing the path for more nuclear-power development.

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From 1998 through 2004, total annual expenditures on lobbying the federal government nearly doubled, from $1.6 billion to an estimated $3 billion-plus, according to “LobbyWatch: How Private Interests Influence Public Policy,” an ongoing investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity. Roughly 650 of the companies peddling their agendas in D.C. are based outside of the U.S., in 78 other countries, CPI reports.

“Basically, what this means from an environmental standpoint is that you have foreign companies helping to determine how we regulate pollution that affects American backyards, but has no direct impact on the home countries of these corporate interests,” said Alex Knott, LobbyWatch project manager.

Of course, American corporations have a long history of taking advantage of lax environmental, labor, and other laws abroad, particularly in developing countries. But now, as trade spreads and the forces of globalization march forward, even developing countries are increasingly weighing in on how America does business. Chinese-based businesses and organizations, for instance, spent $3.7 million lobbying the U.S. government between 1998 and June 2004.

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“There’s no freer access to one’s government anywhere in the world than we allow to ours,” said Knott. “Foreign companies have more of a voice in our country than we or they have in theirs. I don’t think it’s a two-way street.” Knott added that foreign firms have realized that in some cases they can make more money by drilling for oil and mining for precious metals on American lands than on their own because of looser U.S. regulations: “The way our environmental laws are written, there are ways of mining for dollars on the acre. It makes America not only a free market but a free place to get to market.”

Take, for example, the London-based oil giant BP, which is the third-biggest foreign spender on D.C. lobbying, having doled out $33 million from 1998 through mid-2004. (Companies from Britain spend more than those from any other foreign nation on lobbying in Washington — a whopping $189 million from 1998 through June 2004, more than the combined lobbying expenditures of companies from 37 U.S. states.) BP aims to influence oil and gas production issues, of course, and was until 2002 a major force behind Arctic Power, a lobbying group pressing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. The corporation also, perhaps more surprisingly, focuses much of its lobbying effort on waste disposal and Superfund. As CPI analyst Julia DiLaura explains it, “BP and its U.S. affiliates are listed as the potentially responsible parties for 162 Superfund pollution sites that, collectively, have cost the Environmental Protection Agency $1.1 billion in analysis and cleanup costs.”

Another big spender from the U.K. is British Nuclear Fuels, which has paid out more than $7 million from 1998 through mid-2004 to D.C. lobbying firms, including Patton Boggs, to push for nuclear development in the United States — an effort that lately appears to be paying off.

What CPI data analyst Daniel Lathrop finds particularly interesting is how similar the agendas of foreign companies are to America’s homegrown counterparts. Despite the common assumption that corporate competitors in, say, Europe are more environmentally conscientious than the cutthroat free-marketeers in the U.S., “all the corporate interests, foreign or domestic, are lobbying on the same bills and the same sides of the same bills,” he said. “They all want the same thing out of the U.S. government” — whatever will boost their bottom lines.

And corporations’ lobbying expenditures are surely wise investments. Though firms are spending many millions, they’re getting far more in return. Uncle Sam has a proven track record of giving a generous bang for the buck.