Corporate Political Influence: It’s Not Only About Money

Steven Teles

Steven Teles

Lee Drutman

Lee Drutman

Two articles in Washington Monthly’s current issue deal with another dimension of  corporate influence in Congress. In the first article, “A New Agenda for Political Reform,” authors Lee Drutman and Steven Teles detail how legislators and their staffs have become so outmatched in the experience and expertise necessary to deal with today’s complex policy problems that they depend on corporate lobbyists to explain the issues, provide recommendations, and even write legislation.

It was not always so. As the authors recount,

We invested in government capacity to win two world wars and counter a great depression, and then in the 1960s and 1970s to address a range of market failures dealing with the environment, and workplace and consumer safety issues.

Then sometime around 1980, government capacity flatlined. Congress stopped hiring, then began cutting. Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which provide nonpartisan policy and program analysis to lawmakers, employ 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979. … At the same time, business lobbying, political polarization, and wealth inequality all started their steady and unmitigated increases. Put simply, the pressures have increased. The ability of the government to deal with them has not.

After elaborating the problem in considerable detail, the authors ask, “What would we do if we were serious about rebuilding Congress?” Their answer:

  1. Make working for Congress a long-term career, where staff can invest in real policy knowledge and get to know the players and the histories.
  2. Concentrate top talent on committees, where staffers can focus on developing policy (rather than responding to constituents).

Would Congress be willing to invest in its own staff capacity?

Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community.

The authors see boosting government’s competence as a better bet than campaign finance reform:

For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies.

Surely there’s need for both.

The second article, “A Lobbyist Just for You: And two other solutions to counter corporate influence in Washington”, is by Drutman alone. In public opinion about political influence he sees a mix of idealism and cynicism: If only we could get special interests out of politics all of government’s problems would be solved, but most politicians are too craven and venal.  The reality is more complex: In a democracy, politicians are supposed to answer to constituents; the lobbyist community actually has much useful expertise and experience to contribute, and those determined to participate in the political process will find ways to do so.

Drutman identifies three genuine problems.

  • The balance of power. When corporate interests spend $34 for every $1 spent by diffuse interests and unions combined, the fight is not fair.
  • Asymmetry of information. As indicated in the first article, legislators and administration officials are forced to rely on outside lobbyists for policy expertise.
  • Particularism. Companies lobby for narrow, rent-seeking outcomes, crowding out the political system’s capacity to address larger problems.

Having described the problems, the author devotes considerably more space to solutions.

Solution #1. Let everyone have a lobbyist.

The author shares James Madison’s faith that the best way to deal with factions is for faction to counteract faction. Just as everyone who interacts with the judicial system has a right to a lawyer, everyone whose interests are materially affected by the political system deserves a lobbyist. One approach would be award federal lobbyist subsidies  to groups that satisfy certain criteria. Another would be to create a federal Office of Public Lobbying which would maintain a team of public lobbyists who would represent various public interest clients before the government. Zephyr Teachout is quoted as noting that “Congress could hire, at a fraction of the expense paid to lobbyists, advocates to represent a range of opinions on any proposed legislation, and stage trial-like debates between them.”

Solution #2. Let everyone in on the lobbyists’ secrets.

The 1946 Administrative Procedure Act created “uniform procedures for rulemaking, adjudication, and transparency on federal agencies,” but lobbying Congress remains haphazard. The quarterly lobbying reports that organizations are required to file are vague, not necessarily listing specific issues or disclosing which offices they visited, which positions they advocated, or what draft legislation they left behind.

The author advocates a Congressional Lobbying Procedure Act creating uniform processes for lobbying Congress, with a central website where any advocacy would be posted within forty-eight hours, giving a short summary of the meeting and reporting who attended and what was advocated for. White papers, draft legislation, and other leave-behinds would be posted as well, making the website a central repository for all arguments and advocacy.

This Act would level the playing field between corporate and diffuse interests, making it much easier for the latter to know what corporate lobbyists are advocating and to respond promptly. It would bring real-time transparency to attempts to insert narrow provisions, enabling watchdogs to bring public scrutiny to deals that depend on nobody else noticing them. This would reduce the rewards for narrow-interest lobbying, and much legislation could be simpler.

Solution #3. Let lawmakers have enough expert staff so that they don’t need lobbyists.

Better pay and working conditions for Congressional staffers would attract and retain more top policy talent. As noted in the first article, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) are severely underfunded and understaffed, and their budgets and institutional reach should be expanded.

House and Senate offices could officially partner with local universities, particularly public policy schools and law schools, which could motivate participation by giving formal credit to faculty who lend their expertise and lead students to help make national policy.

How these solutions would work together.

You might expect that adding more lobbying (Solution #1) to a system gridlocked by competitive lobbying would just make the gridlock worse, but moving lobbying into an online public conversation (Solution #2) would organize it better, and giving offices more of their own policy capacity (Solution #3) would enable them to sort through the information and pressures more effectively.

Real-time online lobbying (Solution #2) could be overwhelmed by corporate interests with the most resources, but this problem could be ameliorated by subsidizing diffuse interests (Solution #1) and by beefing up lawmakers’ capacity to evaluate the information without the help of lobbyists (Solution #3).

*     *     *

Unlike many other reform programs, the one proposed in these two articles doesn’t attempt to sublimate politics, but embraces it. Building on the premises that

  • more lobbying and more political engagement is better
  • shaping public policy requires more money and more resources

it argues that political competition can be steered into more productive channels. And like Lawrence Lessig, it views members of Congress not as venal or corrupt, but as legislators who would like to serve a broader public interest, and could do so more effectively with some additional help.

About Hamilton Richards

I retired in 1966 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days I volunteer technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (CG4Tx.org), Integrity Texas (IntegrityTexas.org), and several friends.
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