Robert Pear’s excellent story in Sunday’s New York Times, about how lobbyists framed the health care debate in Congress, probably made the front page because of its “smoking gun” quality. Pear, having noticed that House members from both parties had offered strikingly similar statements on a provision of the reform bill into the Congressional Record, tracked down e-mails showing that the statements originated with lobbyists for a major biotech firm.
But the story’s value extends to a larger, often overlooked, point: lobbying is less about delivering cash, and more about shaping ideas, than is widely acknowledged. As Lee Drutman, a Ph.D candidate in political science at Berkeley whose research focuses on the rise of corporate lobbying, put it in a recent interview, “Lobbying is a lot more about providing information and expertise and shaping and framing arguments than it is about quid pro quo gifts and money.”
Drutman spent a couple years as a journalist before transitioning to the academy, and he is critical of the news media for fostering a perception of lobbying that, he says, is based more on the occasional scandal than on routine activity. “There’s a real assumption out there that Washington is basically this corrupt place where lawmakers trade votes for money,” he says. But for most lobbyists, “life is not quite that glamorous.”
Rather than buying support, lobbying usually involves shaping the views of lawmakers who are rarely expert in more than one or two areas at most, and whose staffers likely have less experience, and less detailed policy knowledge, than lobbyists do. (Just as many PR flacks are former journalists, many lobbyists are former legislative aides, meaning that Capitol Hill functions as a sort of farm team for lobbying firms.) That doesn’t mean that money doesn’t matter—among other things, it can help create the access that leads to influence. Even then, though, cash is not the only path. “Personal relationships and information are both significant sources of access, and are probably far more important than money,” Drutman wrote last month at the group poli-sci blog The Monkey Cage. (The site published a six-part series by Drutman; other entries are here, here, here, here, and here.)
Drutman’s findings are based largely on his interviews with lobbyists, who have reason to underplay the role of money, and overstate the role of relationship-building and policy expertise, in their line of work. (Results of his survey of lobbyists’ preferred strategies are here.) But they are consistent with prior research findings that the influence of campaign contributions on policy outcomes is surprisingly hard to demonstrate. That doesn’t mean that all is right with the political world—but it does suggest that the danger is less that congressmen will be bought and sold, as they were in the Gilded Age, and more that the public sector has come to rely for expertise on private interests, which are not evenly balanced. In other words, government work gets outsourced to lobbyists.
This seems to be what happened in the case Pear describes. As a chief of staff to one Democratic congressman tells him, “I asked [a lobbyist] for a draft. I tweaked a couple of words. There’s not much reason to reinvent the wheel on a Congressional Record entry.” It also seems to be entirely commonplace. As one lobbyist who didn’t seem to see what the fuss was about told the Times, “This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.”
The aide and the lobbyist have a point, sort of: statements in the Congressional Record are not usually of paramount importance, there’s no sign of illegal activity here, and in all likelihood these members of Congress fully believed what they were saying. Still, the underlying assumption—that a lobbyist could be relied upon to write official language for a congressman, because they’re operating out of the same intellectual framework—is revealing. “What it really does is show how uninvolved a lot of these members of Congress are in the statements that they’re saying, and how even their staffs rely on lobbyists,” Drutman says. “This is what they do—they’re ‘helping’ the member to do what the lobbyists want them to do.”