“There isn’t a single policy decision that’s made in Washington, DC that isn’t influenced by money.”
- Jimmy Williams, former lobbyist, on Planet Money.
Do you understand exactly how political lobbying works? Most articles about it hold certain assumptions about what readers know, like what “influence” really means, and how much we’re talking when we talk about political spending. My goal here is to explain lobbying in simple terms, ask the questions we’re left with, and then take you through the secrets I learned about this industry in my search for the answers.
(As far as external resources go, here’s the simplest explainer I could find, posted on the Times’ India blog, which is funny. A guide meant for non-Americans starting at zero turned out to be the most useful overview for me. An American. You can also find more detail on Wikipedia as usual, but be warned: it’s dense. I summarize the important stuff below. )
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What is lobbying?
The general gist is this: lobbying is the business of swaying the decisions and policies of government officials for specific special interests. It’s done by lobbyists, who are often well-connected advocates and/or lawyers. Lobbyists act as intermediaries between a company or group with a special interest, and the government officials making decisions on those related issues. Need an example?
In 2011, the Department of Agriculture submitted a proposal to Congress that would reduce federal spending and give public schools kids healthier lunches. On a human level this was good, but we live in a free market economy, and it threatened some companies’ bottom lines (think Coca Cola and the guys who make frozen pizza). So those companies hired lobbyists, and gave them money to spend. The lobbyists sat down with congressmen, used that money to contribute heavily to their campaigns (legislators rely on these donations to win elections), and then strongly encouraged them to block the bill. Guess what happened? No healthy school lunches. That is the power of the food lobby.
Lobbying can also go the other way: legislators can hire lobbyists to save them time by fundraising on their behalf. When this happens, the companies the lobbyists choose as donors have influence over the policy decisions of that legislator.
I should point out here that not all lobbying works against the public interest. Almost everything industry and special interest you can think of has lobbyists working on its behalf, including human rights issues, cancer research, and children’s safety. It’s legal for one and all, so it’s become standard practice if you want to make any change in US politics.
So how much money does it take to influence a legislator?
This may not have been your next question, but it was mine, and I used the gun lobby as a case study to find the answer. In my recent post on why Congress hasn’t passed a gun control law, I noted my active search for an infographic that directly compared how much the gun lobby spent on each congressman with how each congressman voted on the gun bill (AKA, how much money does it take to influence a legislator?). The search was somewhat fruitless, so I decided to find the data and compare it myself. This is where I ran into problems. It turns out the answer to that question is not cut-and-dry.
OpenSecrets.org is self-defined as “the most comprehensive resource for federal campaign contributions, lobbying data and analysis available anywhere.” Its Gun Rights: Money to Congress database tracks the money that goes from lobbyists to US Congress. But I found the numbers shockingly low. Why, for example, would Democrat Debbie Stabenow be undecided on the gun bill if the gun lobby (the NRA and all 44 other listed gun rights lobbying groups) only donated a total of $1,000 to her campaign? Couldn’t she refuse that money to better serve her conscience and her constituents? There was something missing:
Does the gun lobby also donate indirectly to Congress in ways we can’t see?
My next useful stop was this article on the NRA by Robert Draper at the New York Times. From it, I learned that yes, there are other ways the gun lobby throws around its influence – it’s called “outside” (or “indirect”) lobbying, and it’s often done in the form of marketing and PR. They pay for attack ads that indirectly and unofficially support certain candidates. They send email campaigns that encourage their active membership to flood representatives with phone calls. The NRA’s even known to ring doorbells - that costs, too. So instead of directly giving legislators money and face time, they mobilize people in their districts, off the Hill.
But then Draper dropped in a curious detail: the NRA, he wrote, spent more than $345,000 on the 2012 campaign of Jeff Flake from Arizona. I checked this out on OpenSecrets: the entire gun lobby was only recorded to have spent $26,250 on Flake’s campaign in 2012. They couldn’t have spent more than twelve times the recorded spending on indirect lobbying, could they have? Next question:
Is there more hidden money?
Enter our final puzzle piece: Shadow Lobbying, explained in beautiful detail in this recent article in The Nation by Lee Fang. It turns out that a lot of lobbying has gone underground, which makes spending almost impossible to track.
Here’s the loophole that matters: to be an official lobbyist, you’re required to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), so the public and organizations like OpenSecrets can know where you’re throwing your power. But over the past few years, lobbyists realized that they didn’t need to be official lobbyists to do their jobs. They could officially deregister, then continue to go about their business with no checks and no ramifications. According to Fang’s research, “Many of America’s largest corporations have spent much more on lobbying than they’ve officially disclosed. In some cases, the quarterly registration system, used by the public and journalists, shows only one-tenth of the amount that firms spend to win favorable treatment by the federal government.”
And how do we know there are no ramifications? Here’s Lee again, speaking with Keith Morgan, the deputy chief of the US Attorney’s office to Washington, DC. That’s the office responsible for lobbying enforcement:
Though there have been investigations, Morgan’s office has never prosecuted anyone for failing to register or for deregistering while continuing to lobby. “We have no ability to know if somebody doesn’t register unless some insider or a competitor comes and says, ‘We have reason to believe that this individual or this group is lobbying,’” Morgan says. To the best of his knowledge, even though Congress added criminal penalties for failing to disclose lobbying activities, there has not been one single case of criminal enforcement of the law.
…[Assistant Professor at James Madison University and expert Timothy] LaPira confirms the situation: “The Department of Justice does not have the time, or resources, or political will, to really pursue any of these cases.” As a result, the American people are increasingly left in the dark about who’s calling the shots in their government.
So what needs to change?
Laws. An obvious next step is for the Lobbying Disclosure Act to be tightened and enforced. A much more ambitious next step would be a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics. So why haven’t the laws changed? Because they’re nearly impossible to pass. On the surface, the only interests those changes would serve are ours, the citizens, and that doesn’t tend to sell in Congress. Lobbyists would be out of a job. Huge corporations would have vastly less impact. If all policy decisions in Washington are influenced by money, then it’s hard to find advocates with enough money to kill the system, as well as the will to have that system gone.
So that’s political lobbying for you. Not all our questions could be answered, but at least we know that’s because the answers are deliberately obscured. Where politics and money are concerned, there’s a surprising amount of power in knowing exactly what we don’t know.