Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the “nonprofit civic enterprise” the New America Foundation, is the author of The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate. This chart shows the rise in political spending by corporations, money, as Drutman notes, that is now not being spent on developing new products or improving corporate efficiency.
In an interview, Drutman explained the self-perpetuating forces behind the rise corporate political spending (lobbying and campaign contributions, often undisclosed or hard to find) and what he recommends for finding better balance between the information and access available to those who have corporate treasuries to spend and those who do not.
You describe the 2013 trade association change in name from “The American League of Lobbyists” to “Association of Government Relations Professionals.” What does that signify in terms of the public perception of lobbyists and in terms of the broader scope of the members’ activities?
Lobbyists complain that “lobbying” has become a dirty word. Many folks that most of us would think of as “lobbyists” choose not to refer to themselves as “lobbyists.” This name change captures the sense that “government relations” encompasses many things, of which “lobbying” is just one. This might include things like coalition building, grassroots organizing, developing media and public relations strategies, policy research, or many other things. There are many aspects of the modern influence economy, which is what often makes it so tricky to understand and describe.
What do you mean when you describe lobbying as “sticky” and self-perpetuating?
Once companies start lobbying they tend to keep lobbying. This is because once they have lobbyists, they have somebody whose job it is to keep companies informed about the goings-on in Washington, and whose job also depends on corporate managers thinking lobbying is a good investment because there are lots of important policy issues to influence. Corporate managers are busy running the company. Lobbyists know what’s going on in DC. There is an information asymmetry between them and their lobbyists. If lobbyists recommend the company continue to lobby and provide plausible reasons to lobby, the company will continue to lobby. Hence, lobbying is self-perpetuating.
How do lobbyists perpetuate the status quo? Would you say they entrench current structures and policies?
Corporate lobbying is a mix of offense and defense. Most companies have policies to protect and policies to change. Take the tax code — it’s an obvious mess. But so many companies and industries benefit from particular provisions, and they defend these provisions aggressively. This makes comprehensive tax reform very difficult. This example generalizes to other issues. Any change that challenges the benefits of a particular company or industry will be strongly opposed. The U.S. political system has many veto points, making it particularly hard to pass legislation generally. Each veto point provides an opportunity for a lobbyist to stop the process by raising doubts or finding an ally to slow or stop things. The more aggressively companies lobby, the harder change becomes.
Does the growth in lobbying exacerbate or reflect the increased partisanship on Capitol Hill?
Probably a little bit of both. Polarized gridlock demands more lobbying, because it becomes harder to accomplish anything. You need to build bipartisan support, which means hiring Democrats AND Republicans, and building a large coalition. But it also means that groups that aren’t willing to spend big to do this may just not even bother. To the extent that lobbying is about protecting the status quo, and it often is, one good way to prevent action is to make an issue very partisan. Take climate change. That issue has become much more partisan. One reason is that the oil and coal industries doubled down on the Republican Party, fomenting division on the issue.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the exodus from Hill jobs and some executive branch jobs to lobbying firms from the perspective of public policy?
I’m not sure there’s much of an advantage. We should have a legislative and executive branch staffed by the smartest, most experienced people you can find. But this is a constant challenge, because budgets are limited in government, which means that both branches, especially Congress, demand a lot out of people and pay them only a fraction of what they could earn elsewhere. There are a lot of talented people working in government, but they are often inexperienced, and they burn out quickly. New people come in, but they often have to turn to lobbyists to teach them what they need to know, since the lobbyists are the ones who are willing to spend the time educating the new staffers.
How does information asymmetry benefit lobbyists and their clients? Are there benefits to public policy as well? You say that when industry overstates costs, it is difficult for the government to collect adequate information to rebut their data. Who is in a position to address this?
The information asymmetry benefits lobbyists because it makes them more important. It benefits their clients to the extent that they can fill that gap. I don’t see how public policy benefits. Certainly, industry input is important. But government needs to have enough qualified people to be able to effectively call BS on industry figures and claims.
How does legislative lobbying at the federal level differ in technique and effect from executive branch/regulatory lobbying? From state-level lobbying?
Executive branch and regulatory lobbying tends to require more technical expertise. Regulators are more interested in the actual impact of the rules, and how it will actually work. In Congress, you can get away with generalities and moral arguments more. State-level lobbying varies, but in general, the more amateur the legislature, the more important the role of lobbyists as the providers of policy expertise.
You make a distinction between normative and instrumental arguments. Can you give examples?
A normative argument would be “Congress should simplify the tax code, because the tax code is an abomination that undermines fairness and efficiency.” An Instrumental argument would be: “Here’s a plan to simplify the tax code, and we’ve done the math and we’ve vetted it with a bunch of tax policy experts.” Instrumental arguments provide legitimacy that things will actually work. Normative arguments speak to general values.
What is a favorite example of the way lobbying firms describe themselves from their marketing materials? How is Abramoff’s example instructive?
Not sure there’s one that stands out, but it’s all variations on the same theme: “Our firm is staffed by Washington insiders who know how things really work here, and we can put our experience to work for you,” followed by a list of things that they’ve accomplished. Abramoff’s example is instructive because his whole shtick was how much access he had — he puffed himself up as this insider, with close ties to DeLay and others. How much access did he actually have? Hard to tell. But notice that none of his clients were savvy companies. And Abramoff went to jail for bilking his clients of millions of dollars.
How much time do Members of Congress and Senators spend raising money? What has that meant in terms of electability?
Estimates are that they spend up to a third of their time in Washington raising money, though it probably varies. Those who are in the leadership or in close races probably spend more time; others in safe seats with little aspiration to rise within the party probably spend less. I’m not sure it has much effect on electability, since incumbents keep getting re-elected at remarkable rates. But it does take up time and energy, and it means they need to nod sympathetically to what their donors tell them. More broadly, large donors collectively play a gatekeeper role in politics. They determine who is and who is not a legitimate candidate.
Do you think that the Hill should adhere to the same kinds of disclosure requirements imposed on regulators in the Executive Branch by the Administrative Procedures Act and the Sunshine Act?
I do. I think if you lobby a congressional office, you ought to make any white papers or one-pagers or research reports public. And I do think the Administrative Procedures Act is a good model in that regard. There are problems with the APA, especially the requirement that agencies respond to everything, which wind up giving more power to aggressive corporate lobbies. But the idea that all arguments should be public — absolutely. And with the Internet, that’s very easy to do. Just as all legislation is now online, so all advocacy and argumentation around that legislation could be online. Then we can collectively vet and evaluate it.