(this is post #3 in a series on money and influence in politics)
Today I want to start off by taking a look at how lobbyists see themselves and their role in the political process. Doing so will take us past the caricatures. It will also help us to see where influence actually may lie.
Not surprisingly, lobbyists see themselves as extremely misunderstood. They think a few bad apples have ruined their reputation. Most lobbyists see themselves largely as providers of information (both to the government and to their clients). They advocate on behalf many large and supposedly powerful clients, but in general, they feel that these clients have a lot to contribute to the public good, and it is their job to make this case.
Patton Boggs lobbyist Nick Allard, who represents many large corporations, has written a very good and thoughtful defense of lobbying entitled “Lobbying is an Honorable Profession.” He writes:
The successful practice of public policy is rooted in the mastery of procedures and the ability to explain how a given position advances the public interest…Even the most legendary of the “Super Lobbyists”… are usually the smartest, most prepared, hardest working people in the room.
Lobbyists also often see themselves as the experts. Here is Thomas Susman, another thoughtful and experienced Washington lobbyist, from a presentation at a conference on The Ethics of Lobbying:
Government has become sufficiently complex that, without the information lobbyists bring to legislators, decision-making would be – at best – poorly informed.
Lobbyists also see themselves as being very clever tacticians, who know the process quite well, sometimes even better than the rookie staffers who increasingly populate Capitol Hill (as Hill staffers leave sooner and sooner to become lobbyists).
Here is Allard again (alternately quoting lobbyist Bryce Harlow from a somewhat famous speech on “Corporate Representation”):
Most importantly, public policy advocates have to be experts in the often abstruse routines and procedures of government decision-making. An effective lobbyist must understand “the rules of how various institutions work, internally and with each other” and more generally must “have a clear fix…on how the government actually works, how the pieces fit together, how things get done.”
So there you have it: Lobbyists are the hard-working experts in both policy and procedure, and really, Washington couldn’t function without them. They also know all the “abstruse routines and procedures of government decision-making.”
So this takes us a little closer, I think, to what lobbyists actually do. I’ll refer again also to my survey of lobbyists’ tactic rankings, which highlights the importance of direct contacting, identifying “champions,” monitoring developments, plotting strategy, drafting legislation, providing information and expertise.
But here is where things get a little messier and murkier.
Let’s come back to the healthcare legislation. Most of the political coverage has been about the very top-level debates: will there be a public option, what kind of insurance mandate will there be, etc. So when America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) puts out a big report on how reform will raise costs, it gets a lot of coverage. (This, by the way, is a classic lobbying tactic – trying to show that some unwanted piece of legislation is going to have “unintended consequences”; in this case, though, it appears to have backfired, probably because so many people are paying attention).
But whatever bill passes (assuming one does), it is going to be at least 1,000 pages long with a lot of different provisions. The healthcare system is very complex. There are lots of little pieces to the system. And I would wager that a significant amount of lobbying is going on dealing with the constituent pieces. (Why, for example, were there 564 proposed amendments in the Senate Finance Committee?)
Because so much of what lobbyists do is about the process, looking at the macro-level outcome is going to miss a lot of the action.
I would wager that in the process of drafting this bill, there were thousands of lobbyists who were concerned about only one or two provisions. Quite possibly, they were able to show how they were experts on that particular piece of the healthcare system, and were also able to show how some proposed change would or would not be in the public interest (depending on whether or not it was a wanted change). In all likelihood, they worked with a friendly member of Congress (probably using a local constituent tie), and got a particular provision into the legislation.
As an example, here is a very worthwhile article from the New York Times, about how a Texas hospital was able to eliminate a proposal to limit physician ownership to 40 percent of any hospital. The article actually gets into some of the minutia of physician-owned hospitals. I have, sadly, not seen many other articles that get so much into the weeds.
This is not the kind of thing that one can trace to a roll-call vote very easily. But it is very important – it is the nuts and bolts of the process.
And my sense is that it is happening more and more on a general level, both as policy becomes more complex and there are more and more lobbyists.
One of the things that my research focuses on is how corporations have gone from being reactive to proactive in their Washington lobbying strategies. A good portion of this involves going after small, targeted benefits the fall in the penumbra of what Ted Lowi once labeled distributive politics.
In the next two posts, I’m going to examine some of the reasons why lobbyists are likely to enjoy some success in these areas, focusing first on the general lack of competition, and second going into more detail on the multiple ways lobbyists gain access.