What Money Can’t Buy

Times story offers a unique picture of lobbyists at work

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.”

The problem for the media is that stories like Pear’s—which focus on relationships, access, and D.C.’s intellectual environment—are less common than articles that are, in one way or another, about money. Some of those stories, like the ones about Duke Cunningham or William Jefferson, concern the exceptions to the rule, the times when votes really are sold. These are “news stories” in the classic sense—accounts of the system breaking down and the public trust being exploited by villains. They are also much better reads than stories about how lobbying normally works, which, Drutman notes, is “kind of boring.” Antique commodes and cases of cash in a freezer will always trump a couple of guys in pin-striped suits arguing.

But there is also another class of news story—what Drutman calls “hand-wavey” accounts—that note that money is pouring into D.C., but don’t spell out how that money is, or isn’t, moving votes. These articles often make use of figures compiled by organizations such as the Center for Responsive Politics, which make data on campaign contributions easier to access, organize, and report on than ever before.

But, Drutman worries, there’s often too little qualitative reporting to back up that quantitative material, and, as a result, a lot of questions go unanswered: “What are these lobbyists doing? How are they making the case? How are they changing minds? Are they changing minds? Or does everybody already buy into the banking industry’s story more or less, because that’s the only story that they’ve been hearing for their entire time in Congress?”

His plea is, essentially, for reporters to do more reporting. “I think the story that needs to be told is just following around both members of Congress as they’re being lobbied, and lobbyists as they’re lobbying members of Congress and seeing what is happening on a day-to-day level that may or may not be moving particular key votes.”

That may be easier said than done. In this case, though, the Times’s Pear delivered something very much like it—and, in the process, helped show readers how the business of lobbying works.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.