How business gets done in Washington

by lee_drutman on October 19, 2009 · 1 comment

in Uncategorized

Last week, over fried fish and chicken tenders at a hole-in-the-wall place around the corner from his office, John convinced me to guest-blog here at The Monkey Cage for a week about lobbying and influence. This is how business gets done in Washington, I guess.

For the last two years, I’ve been researching and writing my dissertation on the growth of corporate lobbying in Washington. I’ve interviewed 60 lobbyists, and I’ve gathered a bunch of data.

This week I’m going to do my best to explain how I think lobbying works, and what I think about the role of money in politics. For purposes of relevance and timeliness, I’m going to use healthcare as the tableaux.

In typical political science fashion, I’m going to start with the conventional wisdom. Which is (spoiler alert!) obviously going to be…WRONG!

To get us in the mood, let’s look at a New York Times Week in Review piece from a few months back, “The Lobbying Web” —In which reporter John Harwood reports that the health care industry has spent $133 million in lobbying expenditures in the second quarter alone (Ooooooo…..), This, he reports, “hardly sounds like the change Mr. Obama or his supporters had in mind.” (Oooooo….) The point of the article seems to be this: there is a lot of lobbying going on. And this is probably going to undermine reform.

As for what the public thinks, Harwood has this juicy tidbit:

At a focus group sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center last week among independent voters in Towson, Md., a rental agent, Remi Brooke, labeled special interests in Washington as “organized crime”; a graphic designer, Louis Moriconi, added, “We’re really at the mercy of the power groups, the lobbyists and the financiers.”

Remember how Obama and McCain both treated lobbyists as toxic substances in 2008? (The public especially really, really does not like lobbyists and special interests.)

Two Sundays ago, the esteemed Times Week in Review section ran another article on how lobbyists were being really active on healthcare (“Lobbyists Fight Last Big Plans to Cut Health Care Costs”) and, again, how this might undermine reform. David Kirkpatrick quotes Representative Jim Cooper (“a conservative Tennessee Democrat who teaches health policy”) as saying “The lobbyists are winning.”

I’m picking on the New York Times a bit because it’s the New York Times, but you can pretty much find the basic hand-wavey storyline anywhere: Lobbyists are being really active on healthcare, and they are spending A LOT of money. Ergo, they must be undermining reform.

The point of this series is to fill in the missing pieces of the “And then lobbyists undermine reform!” story. Clearly, lobbyists do play an important role in Washington.

But the implicit popular assumption that Washington is by construction a stinking swamp of corruption, where smooth-talking, cigar-chomping lobbyists with gold watch chains hanging out of their sleek vests need only to say “boo” and their loyal devotees on Capitol Hill will fall over themselves to do their bidding – that’s a pretty one-dimensional stick-figure view of things. It’s also just not true.

The reality, I think, is far more interesting.

In my next post, “It’s NOT all about the Benjamins,” I will engage with the popular view that money buys votes.

{ 1 comment }

Tim LaPira October 19, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Kudos! Finally one of the good folks at the Monkey Cage posts on my biggest pet peeve in American political journalism: the persistent and oversimplified view that “money buys power.” Though not a surprise to most political scientists who study interest groups, I hope this mini-series of posts will open the eyes of some journalist(s) that the policy process is much more complicated (and interesting!) than the familiar arm-twisting story of lobbying influence. And simply assuming lobbying expenditures (or worse, PAC contributions) are a proxy for “power” misses some of the most interesting political and economic incentives that motivate lobbyists and the politicians they earn money trying to influence. I’m not holding my breath though…in my experience, trying to get journalists and the good-government types to abandon this unidimensional perspective is futile. Thanks for this Lee…looking forward to reading more.

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