The Rise of the Lobbyists

Lobbyists are more pervasive than ever in Washington, but are they more effective?
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(Photo: M DOGAN/Shutterstock)

(Photo: M DOGAN/Shutterstock)

I attended a talk last week by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Drutman was describing some of the findings in his new book, The Business of America Is Lobbying, which is a fascinating examination of how lobbying has grown and changed and come to dominate so much of lawmaking in Washington, D.C.

We're used to hearing about the omnipresence of corporate lobbyists in D.C., but as Drutman points out, this is actually a pretty recent phenomenon. In the mid-20th century, major corporations generally didn't hire many people to represent them in the Capitol. They were plenty interested in politics and wanted to make sure that Congress didn't act in a way that was overly hostile to their interests, but for the most part, they didn't invest a lot to achieve that. Indeed, when Ralph Nader began advocating on behalf of consumers in the 1960s and pointing out the dangers of some cars, the auto industry didn't know how to defend itself and lashed out in bizarre ways.

This has changed dramatically over the past few decades, with the number of registered lobbyists in Washington now approaching 15,000. These lobbyists overwhelmingly represent narrow corporate interests; these are industry lobbyists seeking to protect their employers' revenue streams, either by simply defeating new legislation or by seeking out tax breaks and regulatory advantages. Yes, there are lobbyists on the other side -- people who represent more "diffuse" interests -- but they are largely outmanned and outgunned.

Do corporations have an advantage in the policymaking process? Unquestionably. But a large part of that is because they tend to work on behalf of the status quo.

As Elizabeth Warren explained last week, this is key to understanding industry influence in Washington. Yes, corporate leaders spend a great deal on campaign advertising, but that doesn't really capture the extent of their presence. Corporate lobbyists, rather, appear at every stage of the policymaking process. They show up at the offices of members of Congress, they sit in on committee hearings, and they entertain members and their staffers (to the extent the law permits). But more than that, they show up for meetings of regulatory agencies in the executive branch, trying to shape the power of existing laws. They are everywhere.

To some, this is terrifying. What chance does a group like Public Citizen or the American Civil Liberties Union or a labor union have against corporate interests whose members dominate every aspect of the nation's policymaking process?

Seen another way, however, this activity reveals an extraordinary amount of waste. As Constitutional framers like James Madison and more recent political observers have noted, the American governing system has an enormous bias in favor of the status quo. That is, given a system of separate-but-shared powers with different branches competing against each other and many access points for interests to make their views known, it is very hard to pass any substantive laws. Even in the absence of lobbying, very few bills would become law.

Thus a great deal of what corporate lobbyists do just has to be a waste of their time and their bosses' money. Indeed, as Drutman pointed out in his talk, lobbyists spend a fair amount of time advertising their own work back to their bosses, who don't follow politics closely and are oriented toward a very short term return-on-investment mindset that doesn't really mirror the policymaking timetable in D.C. Lobbyists are prone to puffing up their own reputations precisely because it's so hard to pinpoint just where they were effective.

And that's part of what's so frustrating about the lobbying system. At some point, some of this activity is probably effective. Some conversation may actually change the mind of a member of Congress. But it's hard to know just what conversation that was. And so the corporations will end up spending hundreds of millions of dollars on what they believe is a defense of their interests, without ever really knowing how much of it, if any, was actually useful.

Do corporations have an advantage in the policymaking process? Unquestionably. But a large part of that is because they tend to work on behalf of the status quo, and the status quo tends to win most of the time anyway. Does their lobbying end up giving them more of an edge? Quite possibly. But good luck figuring out just how much.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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