Who can forget Jack Abramoff, the super-lobbyist? In a pleasant operation called “Gimme Five,” he took on Indian tribes as clients, ostensibly to lobby in support of their interests in casino gambling. Privately, Abramoff described them as “morons” and “troglodytes” as he and his associates grossly overbilled the tribes, raking in $85 million while, at times, covertly working against their interests.
In 2006, Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe members of Congress. He was sentenced to four years in jail and was released to a halfway house in June 2010.
The array of astonishingly corrupt activity that became known as the Abramoff scandal is just one of many reasons why lobbyists come in dead last — behind car salesmen — in national polls on honesty, with only 5 percent of Americans giving them a “high” rating for ethical standards. The public scorn is nothing new. Walt Whitman, the 19th-century poet, famously denounced “lobbyers” as “crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom-sellers of the Earth.”
Just the same, last year nearly 13,800 lobbyists were registered to try to sway the White House, the Congress and government agencies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in U.S. politics. Businesses, trade associations and other groups spent a record $3.5 billion in 2009 on lobbying, more than twice as much as in 2000.
But contrary to popular belief, Washington is not widely for sale to special interests and the K Street lobbyists they hire, at least not in the short term. One of the most in-depth studies ever conducted on the day-to-day workings of Washington, and the only one based on a random sample — the prizewinning 2009 book, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses and Why — reveals that the groups with the most money and lobbyists don’t necessarily get their congressional way. In fact, an analysis of about 100 randomly selected issues with interest-group involvement shows that advocates on both sides of an issue tend to form diverse coalitions, more or less equalizing their resources.
In This Issue
Lobbying doesn’t usually work; fat won’t kill you; and the Dead Sea doesn’t need to die. Check out those stories, our cover story on oxytocin shaking up the field of economics and much more in theSeptember-October 2010 issue ofMiller-McCune magazine.
Wealthy interests weigh in from all directions. Unions and citizen groups lack financial clout but are recognized as major actors. There are many moving parts in politics, and money is just one of them.
The real outcome of most lobbying — in fact, its greatest success — is the achievement of nothing, the maintenance of the status quo. “Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens,” says Frank Baumgartner, one author of the book and a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs. We see a pattern of no change, no change and no change — and then some huge reform.”
But those large reforms — such as health care for 32 million uninsured Americans under President Barack Obama, the scheduled phase-out of the estate tax under President George W. Bush, and the normalization of trade relations with China under President Bill Clinton — are far more often linked to a change in who inhabits the White House than to campaign contributions or K Street hires.
The weak link between money and policy change is counterintuitive but understandable, the authors say. The balance of power in Washington already hugely favors the rich. The status quo reflects the considerable advantages the wealthy have managed to secure in the law, down through the generations.
“If they really wanted something, they probably already have it,” Baumgartner says.
American history is replete with tales of corruption in the halls of Congress. The administration of President Ulysses Grant was notoriously entangled with Crédit Mobilier, the construction company organized by Union Pacific to lay the track for a transcontinental railroad. When the New York Sun revealed that Union Pacific had distributed stock in Crédit Mobilier to the vice president and leading members of the House and Senate, many reputations were ruined.
In the early 1960s, during the Kennedy administration, Bobby Baker, the Senate majority secretary, came under investigation on allegations of bribing congressmen with money and women to win government contracts for his vending machine business. Amid uproar and scandal, Baker resigned.
In 1976, The Washington Post broke the story of “Koreagate,” in which the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency allegedly funneled bribes and favors to members of Congress through Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman. The Koreans wanted more U.S. military support, and Park confessed to disbursing cash to 30 members of Congress.
In the past, scholars investigating the link between money and power in Washington focused on the scandals and controversies that made national headlines. They looked into such high-profile single issues as gun control, auto imports, dairy price supports, the 1979 loan to Chrysler and the 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Only a handful of researchers examined lobbying expenditures, even for single policies, because it was difficult to access the information online. When they looked at campaign contributions, they found half the time that money influenced policy outcomes; and half the time, they didn’t find a smoking gun.
Lobbying and Policy Change confirms these 50-50 findings more conclusively, delving into not one but 98 issues — chosen randomly — and going well beyond campaign contributions. The five authors, all of them political scientists, had the help of a small army of graduate students. They sifted through 20,000 lobbying reports and interviewed more than 300 key advocates, including lobbyists, government officials and the legislative aides and chiefs of staff of members of Congress, all of whom were actively trying to bring about change or preserve the status quo.
The authors followed these 98 issues from 1999 through 2002, covering the last two years of the administration of Bill Clinton and the first two years of George W. Bush. They totaled the resources available to each interest group, including the membership, budget, annual revenues, employees, number of hired lobbyists and expenditures on lobbying and political action committees. They kept track of who got what they wanted and who did not.
Lobbying and Policy Change was a daunting 10-year effort, and it recently won the 2010 Leon D. Epstein Outstanding Book Award from the American Political Science Association. Marie Hojnacki, one of the authors and an associate professor of political science at Penn State University, says she’s “thought, at times, selfishly, about sending the book to the Obama administration.
“I wanted them to have a copy. I’m not suggesting that we could instruct them. But in every new administration, there’s an underestimate of how difficult it is to change the status quo.”
Sixty percent of the time, the book shows, opposing lobbyists and interest groups held each other in check. Whether on the left or the right, they had only a 40 percent success rate in changing policy over four years. Despite their all-powerful image, lobbyists “are often swimming upstream, trying to make the best out of a situation they do not control,” the book says.
A decade ago, the hundreds of corporations and trade and professional associations that played a major role in one or more of the 98 issues in the study were each spending an average of $2 million per year on lobbying in general — twice as much as individual unions and five times as much as individual citizen groups. Multiplied by the number of organizations involved, total spending was grossly lopsided, with all of the corporations and associations together spending 19 times as much as all of the unions and 12 times as much as all of the citizen groups, and that was not counting PAC donations.
Yet across the board for the 98 issues, the side with more lobbyists, more PAC donations, bigger organizational budgets and more members won only half the time. Any issue that unites business groups is likely to unite environmentalists, consumers and labor officials in opposition. Wealth and resources can make a difference, the researchers conclude, but only if the balance of resources is heavily skewed toward one side, and that occurred only 19 percent of the time. Even then, the wealthier side didn’t always win.
A better predictor of success than money in winning or killing legislation was the support of government agency heads, congressmen-turned-lobbyists, high-level congressional and government officials and — best of all — party leaders and the president. “I feel a little better about democracy after this project,” says David Kimball, an author of the book and an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “I was expecting to find more evidence that resources played a huge role in policymaking. Certainly, they still are important, but in the end, not as determinative as you might expect.
“Once issues come before the government, there’s quite an opportunity for lots of voices to be heard.”
The conclusions of Lobbying and Policy Change are, of course, not universally accepted as completely accurate. Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as “the people’s voice in the nation’s capital,” agrees that what lobbyists do best is preserve the status quo. But he believes money is paramount. In his experience, Holman says, corporations with their multimillions have a 20 percent success rate, compared to only 5 percent for Public Citizen, with its $3 million annual budget for lobbying.
“Money really does rule,” Holman said. “We can always kill legislation. But I don’t see a 50-50 win at all. The corporate world views lobbying as a very significant means of achieving its objectives. If we had more money, we would significantly improve our success rate.”
One of Public Citizen’s biggest wins came in 2007, with the passage of a sweeping lobby and ethics reform bill, called the “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.” Holman helped write the law, which stiffened the requirements for public disclosure of lobbying activity and prohibited lobbyists from providing gifts or travel to members of Congress.
The trajectory of ethics reform validates one major finding of Lobbying and Policy Change: Significant change happens all at once, when, for whatever reason, all the right political stars align. Holman, a political scientist with a doctorate, recalls how, for years, he couldn’t get anyone in Washington to meet with him or return his phone calls, much less read his plan for keeping Congress honest. After the Abramoff scandal broke, his phone was ringing off the hook.
“That was a huge victory because of Jack Abramoff,” Holman said. “Even then, it was a huge battle to try to get what we got. Trying to reform the legislative agenda against the status quo — once in a while we can get a victory. But we need all kinds of events to line up to make it possible.”
Lobbyists may not be the boogeymen the public thinks they are, but K Street does exemplify a fundamental problem with American democracy. It takes money to play the game, and the lobbying agenda in Washington is overwhelmingly the agenda of the wealthy. For the 98 issues studied forLobbying and Policy Change, corporations and business, trade and professional associations were mentioned nearly 600 times as major participants. By contrast, unions popped up only 77 times, and more often than not, they were the same six unions spread thin. In fact, the book reports that unions make up only 6 percent of the interest-group community, despite their frequent mention in the press as a “special interest group.”
Most lobbies, including corporations, are associated with people’s jobs. Police chiefs have lobbyists, but the residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods don’t have the resources to hire an advocate in Washington. “There certainly seems to be a mismatch,” Kimball says. “It looks to us like government pays more attention to issues that are a concern to lobbyists. That’s the more disturbing side of what we found.”
The wealth bias means that groups such as Public Citizen don’t pursue such causes as single-payer universal health care, although they would like to. “We know it isn’t going anywhere, so we don’t even try,” Holman says. “The wealthy really do determine the agenda and prevent various issues from being discussed.”
What lobbyists seek to influence does not generally correspond with what the public wants. Ten years ago, the authors note, Americans placed crime, the economy and international affairs at the top of their list of concerns, while lobbyists were focused on health, the environment and transportation. And the health issues being debated had more to do with reimbursement for radiologists and other professionals than with quality of care.
The real losers of a system attuned to the desires of the wealthy and tilted toward maintenance of the status quo are the poor, who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars a month to spend on a lobbyist. Few in the Capitol are advocating for mental health care, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, patients’ rights, neighborhood safety or the economic security of working Americans. “The biggest indictment of the lobbying community is that it amplifies the voice of those who already have the most resources in society and leaves the people with the greatest needs completely voiceless,” Baumgartner says.
Stalemate is the default setting for Washington chiefly because power is usually divided by party. When administrations change, so, often, do policies, particularly when the old and new presidents are from opposing parties. The Clinton administration puts in place sweeping ergonomic regulations designed to prevent repetitive motion injuries in the workplace; the incoming Bush administration scraps them.
A prominent example of the striking resilience of the status quo in American politics, as maintained by changing partisanship in Congress, is Yucca Mountain, Nev., and the efforts to use it as a repository for spent nuclear fuel rods. A Republican-dominated Congress laid the groundwork for the project in 1982, Clinton vetoed it in 2000; the Bush administration gave it the green light in 2002; and this year, a Democratic Congress quietly withdrew the funding.
As Lobbying and Policy Change says, it’s a “long-running play with the same cast speaking the same lines.”
“What we’ve tried to do is give a picture of a democracy with all of its flaws and its advantages, not vilified or idealized, but how it is,” says Beth Leech, one of the authors and an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University.
In the real world described by the book, most proposed reforms die for lack of time and attention. Eight thousand bills are introduced in a typical two-year congressional term, and 400 of them are passed. Of the 98 issues that these researchers studied for four years, 42 suffered from lack of attention, including a number that had no active opposition, such as a proposal to fund hearing tests for newborns. Only a handful of issues, such as a ban on late-term abortions, ever made national news. Most received little or no media coverage, as with proposals to change the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots and subsidize commuter rail.