Who can forget Jack Abramoff, the super-lobbyist? In a pleasant operation called "Gimme Five," he took on Indian tribes as clients, ostensibly to lobby in support of their interests in casino gambling. Privately, Abramoff described them as "morons" and "troglodytes" as he and his associates grossly overbilled the tribes, raking in $85 million while, at times, covertly working against their interests.
In 2006, Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe members of Congress. He was sentenced to four years in jail and was released to a halfway house in June 2010.
The array of astonishingly corrupt activity that became known as the Abramoff scandal is just one of many reasons why lobbyists come in dead last — behind car salesmen — in national polls on honesty, with only 5 percent of Americans giving them a "high" rating for ethical standards. The public scorn is nothing new. Walt Whitman, the 19th-century poet, famously denounced "lobbyers" as "crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom-sellers of the Earth."
Just the same, last year nearly 13,800 lobbyists were registered to try to sway the White House, the Congress and government agencies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in U.S. politics. Businesses, trade associations and other groups spent a record $3.5 billion in 2009 on lobbying, more than twice as much as in 2000.
But contrary to popular belief, Washington is not widely for sale to special interests and the K Street lobbyists they hire, at least not in the short term. One of the most in-depth studies ever conducted on the day-to-day workings of Washington, and the only one based on a random sample — the prizewinning 2009 book, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses and Why — reveals that the groups with the most money and lobbyists don't necessarily get their congressional way. In fact, an analysis of about 100 randomly selected issues with interest-group involvement shows that advocates on both sides of an issue tend to form diverse coalitions, more or less equalizing their resources.
In This Issue
Lobbying doesn't usually work; fat won't kill you; and the Dead Sea doesn't need to die. Check out those stories, our cover story on oxytocin shaking up the field of economics and much more in the September-October 2010 issue of Miller-McCune magazine.
Wealthy interests weigh in from all directions. Unions and citizen groups lack financial clout but are recognized as major actors. There are many moving parts in politics, and money is just one of them.
The real outcome of most lobbying — in fact, its greatest success — is the achievement of nothing, the maintenance of the status quo. "Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens," says Frank Baumgartner, one author of the book and a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs. We see a pattern of no change, no change and no change — and then some huge reform."
But those large reforms — such as health care for 32 million uninsured Americans under President Barack Obama, the scheduled phase-out of the estate tax under President George W. Bush, and the normalization of trade relations with China under President Bill Clinton — are far more often linked to a change in who inhabits the White House than to campaign contributions or K Street hires.
The weak link between money and policy change is counterintuitive but understandable, the authors say. The balance of power in Washington already hugely favors the rich. The status quo reflects the considerable advantages the wealthy have managed to secure in the law, down through the generations.
"If they really wanted something, they probably already have it," Baumgartner says.
American history is replete with tales of corruption in the halls of Congress. The administration of President Ulysses Grant was notoriously entangled with Crédit Mobilier, the construction company organized by Union Pacific to lay the track for a transcontinental railroad. When the New York Sun revealed that Union Pacific had distributed stock in Crédit Mobilier to the vice president and leading members of the House and Senate, many reputations were ruined.
In the early 1960s, during the Kennedy administration, Bobby Baker, the Senate majority secretary, came under investigation on allegations of bribing congressmen with money and women to win government contracts for his vending machine business. Amid uproar and scandal, Baker resigned.
In 1976, The Washington Post broke the story of "Koreagate," in which the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency allegedly funneled bribes and favors to members of Congress through Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman. The Koreans wanted more U.S. military support, and Park confessed to disbursing cash to 30 members of Congress.
In the past, scholars investigating the link between money and power in Washington focused on the scandals and controversies that made national headlines. They looked into such high-profile single issues as gun control, auto imports, dairy price supports, the 1979 loan to Chrysler and the 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Only a handful of researchers examined lobbying expenditures, even for single policies, because it was difficult to access the information online. When they looked at campaign contributions, they found half the time that money influenced policy outcomes; and half the time, they didn't find a smoking gun.
Lobbying and Policy Change confirms these 50-50 findings more conclusively, delving into not one but 98 issues — chosen randomly — and going well beyond campaign contributions. The five authors, all of them political scientists, had the help of a small army of graduate students. They sifted through 20,000 lobbying reports and interviewed more than 300 key advocates, including lobbyists, government officials and the legislative aides and chiefs of staff of members of Congress, all of whom were actively trying to bring about change or preserve the status quo.
The authors followed these 98 issues from 1999 through 2002, covering the last two years of the administration of Bill Clinton and the first two years of George W. Bush. They totaled the resources available to each interest group, including the membership, budget, annual revenues, employees, number of hired lobbyists and expenditures on lobbying and political action committees. They kept track of who got what they wanted and who did not.
Lobbying and Policy Change was a daunting 10-year effort, and it recently won the 2010 Leon D. Epstein Outstanding Book Award from the American Political Science Association. Marie Hojnacki, one of the authors and an associate professor of political science at Penn State University, says she's "thought, at times, selfishly, about sending the book to the Obama administration.
"I wanted them to have a copy. I'm not suggesting that we could instruct them. But in every new administration, there's an underestimate of how difficult it is to change the status quo."
Sixty percent of the time, the book shows, opposing lobbyists and interest groups held each other in check. Whether on the left or the right, they had only a 40 percent success rate in changing policy over four years. Despite their all-powerful image, lobbyists "are often swimming upstream, trying to make the best out of a situation they do not control," the book says.
A decade ago, the hundreds of corporations and trade and professional associations that played a major role in one or more of the 98 issues in the study were each spending an average of $2 million per year on lobbying in general — twice as much as individual unions and five times as much as individual citizen groups. Multiplied by the number of organizations involved, total spending was grossly lopsided, with all of the corporations and associations together spending 19 times as much as all of the unions and 12 times as much as all of the citizen groups, and that was not counting PAC donations.
Yet across the board for the 98 issues, the side with more lobbyists, more PAC donations, bigger organizational budgets and more members won only half the time. Any issue that unites business groups is likely to unite environmentalists, consumers and labor officials in opposition. Wealth and resources can make a difference, the researchers conclude, but only if the balance of resources is heavily skewed toward one side, and that occurred only 19 percent of the time. Even then, the wealthier side didn't always win.
A better predictor of success than money in winning or killing legislation was the support of government agency heads, congressmen-turned-lobbyists, high-level congressional and government officials and — best of all — party leaders and the president. "I feel a little better about democracy after this project," says David Kimball, an author of the book and an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "I was expecting to find more evidence that resources played a huge role in policymaking. Certainly, they still are important, but in the end, not as determinative as you might expect.
"Once issues come before the government, there's quite an opportunity for lots of voices to be heard."
The conclusions of Lobbying and Policy Change are, of course, not universally accepted as completely accurate. Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as "the people's voice in the nation's capital," agrees that what lobbyists do best is preserve the status quo. But he believes money is paramount. In his experience, Holman says, corporations with their multimillions have a 20 percent success rate, compared to only 5 percent for Public Citizen, with its $3 million annual budget for lobbying.
"Money really does rule," Holman said. "We can always kill legislation. But I don't see a 50-50 win at all. The corporate world views lobbying as a very significant means of achieving its objectives. If we had more money, we would significantly improve our success rate."
One of Public Citizen's biggest wins came in 2007, with the passage of a sweeping lobby and ethics reform bill, called the "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act." Holman helped write the law, which stiffened the requirements for public disclosure of lobbying activity and prohibited lobbyists from providing gifts or travel to members of Congress.
The trajectory of ethics reform validates one major finding of Lobbying and Policy Change: Significant change happens all at once, when, for whatever reason, all the right political stars align. Holman, a political scientist with a doctorate, recalls how, for years, he couldn't get anyone in Washington to meet with him or return his phone calls, much less read his plan for keeping Congress honest. After the Abramoff scandal broke, his phone was ringing off the hook.
"That was a huge victory because of Jack Abramoff," Holman said. "Even then, it was a huge battle to try to get what we got. Trying to reform the legislative agenda against the status quo — once in a while we can get a victory. But we need all kinds of events to line up to make it possible."
Lobbyists may not be the boogeymen the public thinks they are, but K Street does exemplify a fundamental problem with American democracy. It takes money to play the game, and the lobbying agenda in Washington is overwhelmingly the agenda of the wealthy. For the 98 issues studied for Lobbying and Policy Change, corporations and business, trade and professional associations were mentioned nearly 600 times as major participants. By contrast, unions popped up only 77 times, and more often than not, they were the same six unions spread thin. In fact, the book reports that unions make up only 6 percent of the interest-group community, despite their frequent mention in the press as a "special interest group."
Most lobbies, including corporations, are associated with people's jobs. Police chiefs have lobbyists, but the residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods don't have the resources to hire an advocate in Washington. "There certainly seems to be a mismatch," Kimball says. "It looks to us like government pays more attention to issues that are a concern to lobbyists. That's the more disturbing side of what we found."
The wealth bias means that groups such as Public Citizen don't pursue such causes as single-payer universal health care, although they would like to. "We know it isn't going anywhere, so we don't even try," Holman says. "The wealthy really do determine the agenda and prevent various issues from being discussed."
What lobbyists seek to influence does not generally correspond with what the public wants. Ten years ago, the authors note, Americans placed crime, the economy and international affairs at the top of their list of concerns, while lobbyists were focused on health, the environment and transportation. And the health issues being debated had more to do with reimbursement for radiologists and other professionals than with quality of care.
The real losers of a system attuned to the desires of the wealthy and tilted toward maintenance of the status quo are the poor, who don't have tens of thousands of dollars a month to spend on a lobbyist. Few in the Capitol are advocating for mental health care, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, patients' rights, neighborhood safety or the economic security of working Americans. "The biggest indictment of the lobbying community is that it amplifies the voice of those who already have the most resources in society and leaves the people with the greatest needs completely voiceless," Baumgartner says.
Stalemate is the default setting for Washington chiefly because power is usually divided by party. When administrations change, so, often, do policies, particularly when the old and new presidents are from opposing parties. The Clinton administration puts in place sweeping ergonomic regulations designed to prevent repetitive motion injuries in the workplace; the incoming Bush administration scraps them.
A prominent example of the striking resilience of the status quo in American politics, as maintained by changing partisanship in Congress, is Yucca Mountain, Nev., and the efforts to use it as a repository for spent nuclear fuel rods. A Republican-dominated Congress laid the groundwork for the project in 1982, Clinton vetoed it in 2000; the Bush administration gave it the green light in 2002; and this year, a Democratic Congress quietly withdrew the funding.
As Lobbying and Policy Change says, it's a "long-running play with the same cast speaking the same lines."
"What we've tried to do is give a picture of a democracy with all of its flaws and its advantages, not vilified or idealized, but how it is," says Beth Leech, one of the authors and an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University.
In the real world described by the book, most proposed reforms die for lack of time and attention. Eight thousand bills are introduced in a typical two-year congressional term, and 400 of them are passed. Of the 98 issues that these researchers studied for four years, 42 suffered from lack of attention, including a number that had no active opposition, such as a proposal to fund hearing tests for newborns. Only a handful of issues, such as a ban on late-term abortions, ever made national news. Most received little or no media coverage, as with proposals to change the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots and subsidize commuter rail.
Forty-seven out of the 98 issues never reached the floor of the House or Senate for a roll-call vote. One nonstarter was a 2002 bill to regulate over-the-counter derivatives, exotic financial instruments that almost no one had heard of at the time. Enron, the energy company that went bankrupt, had used derivatives to scam the energy markets in California. The bill to rein them in never got out of committee. "There was never a great constituency to regulate derivatives," says Jeffrey Berry, an author of the book and a professor of political science at Tufts University. "There was never great pressure, and the industry side was able to win."
Also stymied was a broad effort by civil rights organizations to bring attention to what they viewed as systematic racial biases and other flaws in the criminal justice system — the "three strikes" laws and aggressive police behavior in minority communities that sometimes lead to draconian penalties for relatively small offenses.
Toward the end of the Clinton administration, criminal justice reform was beginning to get some attention. A major report by the American Civil Liberties Union, "Driving While Black," exposed the problem of racial profiling, in which police officers on patrol were allegedly much more likely to monitor the behavior of minority drivers than whites. But after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the issue got buried.
"The war on terror after 9/11 made racial profiling seem like recommended police practice, in fact," the book says. "So the effort seems like a complete failure."
In Washington, large "communities of experts" tend to form on both sides of any significant issue. Lobbyists and think tanks work hand in hand with members of Congress and executive branch officials, creating teams of allies that stymie other teams whenever possible, keeping the pace of change slow.
"The public has the impression that interest groups can find a single member of Congress and — poof! — something happens," Hojnacki says. "Policy doesn't work that way. We have a system in place that is designed to move slowly. Many of these organizations are in it for the long haul. It requires a long process of building coalitions of support and looking for the right moment.
"Change can happen quite suddenly, but getting to that point requires big efforts to do it."
A team that's defending the status quo has the advantage. Congress has limited time and attention to give to any proposal, so the supporters of the status quo can sit back and engage in "watchful waiting," husbanding their resources until it's absolutely necessary to confront the opposition. Lobbying and Policy Change shows that the advocates of reform have a much harder time. If party leaders are against them — or if, as is more often the case, they simply can't get the attention of those leaders — their efforts are almost always doomed.
The teams fighting to change or maintain the legislative status quo are organized, professional and focused. Many of the participants in lobbying spend their careers immersed in the day-to-day details of a single cause, countering every twist and turn of their rivals' arguments and trying to convince people in government why a policy might or might not work.
"Washington is saturated with interest-group and think-tank data," Lobbying and Policy Change says. "It flows like a volcanic eruption, 24/7, surging down the halls of Congress and through the corridors of agencies. ... Lobbyists walk around ... with a new study appended to their body like a third arm. Facts compete in Washington, just like Democrats and Republicans."
The sea of information makes Washington a true "no-spin" zone. Contrary to conventional wisdom espoused by the political consulting industry, simply reframing an issue — trying to shift public perception by highlighting one aspect of a problem — rarely works to move legislation. It was effective on only four out of 98, or 4 percent, of the issues the researchers studied. This year, for all the publicity it created, the talk about "death panels" failed to kill health care reform. The community of experts is not easily swayed.
"You can't just spin these people," Leech says. "Our research indicates that members of Congress don't listen to lobbyists unless they want to. There has to be some new information or some new piece of evidence, some new circumstance such as 9/11 or war, or the economy going south."
Viewed in this light, the authors say, the cause of criminal justice reform did make some headway in the late 1990s. The proponents managed to introduce their ideas into the policy community, a kind of "softening up" for a more propitious time when the political moment might be right to seek a change to mandatory sentencing laws and other discriminatory practices.
Will the finding of a link between fossil fuels and global warming, now regarded as mainstream science, bring about major reforms?
"In the case of climate change, industry money has been used to throw doubt on the science," Berry says. "From Exxon down, they have had a lot of effect on public opinion, which in turn influences Congress. I don't know what we're going to get in terms of a broad-scale piece of legislation focused on global warming. We may not get that anytime soon. But in terms of smaller pieces of legislation that can create incentives, there are lots of ways the government may simulate the market to encourage energy conservation and greater utilization of alternative energy sources."
Lobbyists do have other weapons in their arsenal besides money and information, of course. This summer, the National Rifle Association arranged to have itself specifically exempted from legislation that would have required all organizations that lobby to reveal who their top five donors are. The group's bare-knuckles display of might was based less on its wallet and more on its Rolodex of members presumably ready to follow its voting suggestions; its actions also created an opening for several other large-membership organizations like the Sierra Club to join in the exclusion while leaving their less well-endowed peers in the cold.
"Every time a major issue arises," President Obama has said, "we've come to expect that an army of lobbyists will descend on Capitol Hill in the hopes of tilting the laws in their favor."
Yes, but Obama has more clout than any of them. According to Lobbying and Policy Change, the side that has the active support of the president or party leaders, or both, wins 78 percent of the time.
A prime example is the passage this year of landmark health care reform, the ultimate long-term issue that has been around for nearly a century. There were powerful interests on both sides, but Obama's intervention and support tipped the scale. "Imagine the Democrats trying to do this without him," Kimball says. "We found that the president is a big foot on these policy debates and prevails the vast majority of the time."
The election of a Republican president to succeed a Democrat substantially changed the direction of issues 15 percent of the time, the researchers found. Some policies that had been blocked by Democrats went forward under a Republican-controlled Congress, including legislation in 2001 to repeal the federal estate tax this year. Now, Obama is proposing to permanently keep the estate tax on the books.
As Miller-McCune went to press, Obama was backing financial reform bills approved by the House and Senate to broadly tighten government policing of Wall Street. The Senate bill included restrictions on derivatives, the securities that were ignored by Congress in 2002. Amid the collapse of the subprime housing market and one of the deepest financial crises in U.S. history, they were back on the table for discussion.
"We're seeing some of the ways in which having allies in government matters a lot, particularly an active role played by a president," Hojnacki says. "Even the Republicans understand that their constituents are waiting for something to happen to get the market under control. There's not a counterweight of organizations opposed. A lot of financial services firms are frustrated by the process they see unfolding before them."
Perhaps President Harry Truman had it right, 60 years ago, when he said, "The president is the representative of the whole nation, and he's the only lobbyist that all the 160 million people in the country have."
Lobbying and Policy Change shows there is no step-by-step monitoring of severe social problems in the American system of democracy, no moderate adjustments along the way, no bipartisan movement in response to dips and rises in the economy. It's democracy through the ballot box, and when reforms happen, they tend to be big.
The challenge, the authors say, is to represent those who are not at the table.
"That's really where the serious problems of democratic accountability are apparent," Baumgartner says. "It's up to public officials to represent the public interest, and it gets harder and harder for them to hear the other side of the story. The present system keeps them in close connection to moneyed interests. Publicly financed elections would be the best reform we could have. If we could have one reform, that would be it."
The Fair Elections Now Act, a sweeping campaign finance reform bill backed by a coalition of advocacy groups, including Public Citizen, would allow candidates for Congress to run for office on a blend of small donations and limited public funds. "It stands the best chance I have ever seen for a congressional public financing bill," Holman says. "It is reasonable to expect House approval this year, and then we have to take the battle to the Senate, where we do not yet have the votes."
From past experience, Holman knows the legislation is worth putting out there, no matter what. All it may take is another major scandal, a mind-blowing tale of graft and corruption to rival Abramoff's, and — poof! — it could be goodbye status quo, and hello, serious election reform ... after 40 years of trying.
In politics, patience is a winning virtue.