America’s lobbying addiction

Lee Drutman’s new book, The Business of America is Lobbying, is mandatory reading for two groups of people: masochists and those of us who care about the future of self-government in America. After reading Drutman’s depressing book, it is tempting to think that the second group is a subset of the first, but he manages to muster some notes of optimism, and so must the rest of us.

Whether we are worried about money in politics, government sclerosis, or American citizens’ increasing sense of alienation from the actions of their government, Drutman convincingly argues that the rise of lobbying is the key story for us to understand. Having conducted dozens of interviews with working lobbyists and using a wealth of quantitative data, he does a masterful job painting a portrait of just what lobbying means in 21st century America, where it has mushroomed as an industry unto itself—one with revenues of $3.31 billion in 2012, three-quarters of which came from corporate clients.

Lobbying, in Drutman’s telling, is a habit-forming addiction for America’s corporations. Once a corporation takes up the Washington game, it rarely quits; indeed, the more it plays the more its lobbyists are likely to convince it of further opportunities worth pursuing. Especially for the largest firms which spend more than $1 million each year on lobbying, large institutionalized policy staffs working out of D.C. offices are good at figuring out tasks for themselves and for additional hired guns, and good at selling their firms’ management on the idea that they must run faster and faster even just to stay in place. As a result, corporations’ lobbying presence in Washington has become “pervasive” and “ubiquitous.” “This Town” is saturated in advocates working a huge variety of different channels in hopes of influencing policy.

And yet it is hard to say that corporations, writ large, are really winners from this arrangement. Certainly, their interests are respectfully considered in every corner of the policymaking process in a way that regular people’s are not. But Drutman paints a portrait of an arms race that has primarily benefited the arms manufacturers. There is so much lobbying that it is difficult to understand which efforts are really efficacious or worthwhile, and that creates a vicious principal-agent problem in which the lobbyists’ ability to exploit their clients’ uncertainty is nearly limitless. To the extent firms try to solve this by insisting on pursuing measurable impacts, they end up seeking highly particularistic, outcomes—which in turn exponentially expands the field for lobbying, as sector-wide interest group advocacy takes a back seat to firm-specific, intra-sector competition.

It seems clear that we need the lobbyist version of the old lawyer joke: that town is too small for one lawyer to make a living, but it could probably support two and offer a fine living to three. As Drutman puts it, lobbying begets lobbying. This is because it is harder to cut through the noise created by all the other lobbyists; because the fixed costs of launching a policy shop are already sunk; and because figuring out ways in which the government should reorient its policies is inexhaustible. And Drutman provides convincing data to show that the ratchet only goes one way: there has never been a significant draw-down in aggregate troops, and even at the firm level attrition is unusual.

As a result of all this lobbying, the system becomes more byzantine, making it harder for anyone to navigate without more lobbyists. The lobbyists—probably contrary to the interests of business as a whole—are the patrons of kludgeocracy, which is the environment in which they thrive. According to his interviews, this isn’t just an emergent property of the system, but something that lobbyists are canny enough to consciously promote as they play a long game. As the policy environment gets more nooks and crannies—often put there by lobbyists able to stick them into giant bills that overload mere mortal lawmakers with more information than they can process—the need for native Washington knowledge increases. It becomes a full time job, or many full time jobs, just to keep track of all the noteworthy developments in many different forums. As one relative newcomer to the scene told Drutman, “Everybody around here knows everybody, and everybody here is all things to all people. It’s just amazing. You never find anyone who says they don’t know everyone or can’t do everything” (159). That means established incumbents of the lobbying trade, who can make these claims most credibly, seem more and more necessary.

How did we get to this point? Drutman lays out the history, with the 1970s as the watershed. Previously in the habit of taking policymakers’ sympathies for granted, corporations found themselves under attack by Naderites pushing new social regulation and slowly but surely figured out how to mobilize their resources to fight back. Over the last four decades, they have just kept going and going. Drutman thinks this occurs almost entirely on the strength of its own momentum, for the reasons described above, and not because corporations are reacting to the rise of any countervailing forces, especially since lobbying expenditures for unions and public interest groups are so pitiful compared to those for corporations (something like $1 spent for every $34 spent by corporations). Though the momentum story is convincing, it seems to me that Drutman doesn’t really look in the right places to understand the growing power of the anti-corporate forces that corporations must reckon with. The power of the trial bar, the muckraking electronic media, and the ambitions of the regulatory state have all grown enormously alongside the corporate lobbying Borg, and that hardly seems like a coincidence. To give just one example, Drutman notes that tobacco companies had the biggest growth in their lobbying expenditures from 1981 to 2004. Whatever you think of the merits of the arguments made on their behalf, this mobilization seems quite unsurprising; they were truly fighting an existential threat.

Once we start thinking along these lines, a big question looms into view: just what level of involvement in politics is appropriate for corporate America? Almost nobody (and certainly not Drutman) thinks that firms should passively await the pronouncements of policymakers without trying to communicate the specific nature of their needs and interests, and so some degree of lobbying seems benign. The more kludgey and detailed the government’s involvement in a business’s affairs, the more important these communications will become. Corporations will be self-serving in their presentations of information, but there is also good reason to think that they are the ones who know the most about what exactly makes the economy function. We want to prevent undue influence by corporate lobbyists, but “undue” is hardly self-evident.

Probably smartly, Drutman studiously avoids trying to offer any kind of philosophical answer to this question; whatever is appropriate, he is confident that we are well beyond that level right now, and he ends his book with some high-level thoughts on how we might improve the situation.

His first bin of suggestions he calls “Madisonian” for their aspiration of balancing faction against faction. If corporate influence is disproportionately large but hard to diminish, maybe the thing to do is simply increase other groups’ ability to exert their own influence, Drutman reasons. This could take the form of subsidizing lobbying for underrepresented groups, or even providing them with public assistance from an Office of Public Lobbying akin to public defenders. I have to admit, this reminds me of nothing so much as the restaurant customer who thinks the food is terrible but wishes there were bigger portions. If the corporate lobbyists can create the conditions for their own proliferation in a way that chokes the system, it’s not clear to me why we should expect things to be so different if we add a bunch more who are nominally working on behalf of “the public.” The principal-agent problems here seem even worse.

The second group of suggestions, which Drutman labels “Genuine Public Conversation” reforms, hearkens back to the author’s years at the Sunlight Foundation.Basically, the idea is that airing out the lobbying process would loosen the corporate chokehold on the policymaking system. In a way analogous to the Administrative Procedure Act, a Congressional Lobbying Procedure Act could routinize and rationalize the lobbying process, the hope being that greater scrutiny would diminish information asymmetries and thus render our discourse something more like the ideal of calm deliberation. But I wonder if creating reams of new data for analysis would really change much, given that the relevant constraints seem to be on processing information just as much as getting it.

That leads to Drutman’s third group of suggestions, which is the most promising: building the government’s own capacity to collect and process information so that it is less dependent on the lobbyists for this function. This could entail fairly modest programs such as creating a “Congressional Clerkship” program for law students, or a more ambitious full-scale overhaul of congressional staff designed to attract more experienced and talented people to policymaking jobs and then retain them (as Drutman and Steve Teles elaborate on in their recent Washington Monthly article). One important question to ask about reforms such as these is how they relate to the actual men and women who now work as lobbyists—on whom Drutman never casts any aspersions, it must be said. Many policymakers have complained that K Street has leeched all the talent away from Capitol Hill, and that ought to make reformers wonder whether trying to ban these people from directly participating in the policymaking process (as the Obama administration tried to do) misses the point. Drutman’s book should alert people to just what a huge enterprise lobbying has become over the past decades, and his logic asks us to think if we can put this collection of human talent to better use, rather than simply denouncing it as a moral outrage.

Remarkably, Drutman doesn’t show any sympathy in his book for another avenue of reform: massive simplification of our policy structures in a way that diminishes lobbyists’ value. Just as countries locked in an arms race may need to actually enter into a pact to destroy stockpiled weapons, it seems there is a natural role for reformers to play in calling for a sweeping away of the detritus that has accumulated in our policy environment. That wouldn’t end the influence game, by any means, but, like the Tax Reform of 1986, it would at least encourage a return to some first principles, so that incumbency would no longer mean unassailability. I wish Drutman had been more willing to channel the energy of those who react to the picture he paints by saying “to hell with it all”; on the right issues, that battle cry of diffuse interests can be decisive, even if it has a tendency to exhaust itself in ineffectual ranting if it is not focused by some political entrepreneur.

Whatever the solution, Drutman deserves a great deal of credit for depicting the problem so clearly: not that Business X pushed through Policy Y to the detriment of the public, but that corporate lobbying in the aggregate produces sclerosis and utterly obscures responsibility. Mancur Olson’s ominously titled The Rise and Decline of Nations provided one set of answers for where this trend might lead. Let us hope that Drutman’s timely scholarship inspires us to chart a different course.