Getting into the weeds: What do lobbyists actually do?

by lee_drutman on October 20, 2009 · 5 comments

in Uncategorized

(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.


Jake Haselswerdt October 20, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Great stuff in the series so far, Lee. I worked as a lobbyist before joining the Ph.D. program here at GW, and I think you nailed the lobbyist’s point of view in this post. I’m not especially defensive of my old profession, but it is true that lobbyists see themselves as more than just muscle, and there’s at least some justification for that self-image. I can’t speak for every firm, but my old employer will actually try to talk clients out of positions for which convincing public policy arguments cannot be made.

Shag from Brookline October 20, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Do lobbyists operate under an enforceable code of conduct or ethics (as opposed to statutory registration, etc, requirements)?

Lee Drutman October 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm

To answer the question about a lobbyists code of conduct. The American League of Lobbyists does have a code of ethics:

It is not enforced. My sense is that lobbyists try to adhere to it as much as possible, though sometimes they may push the boundaries a bit.

But generally, I would say this: most lobbyists are pretty sensitive about their reputations and pretty scared about winding up on the front page of the Washington Post in scandal.

Calder Stembel October 20, 2009 at 8:19 pm

I assume you just happened upon Nick Allard’s article, so I wanted to add a small piece of information that might interest the GWU members of The Monkey Cage.

GW’s President Emeritus Trachtenberg has ties to Mr. Allard and has twice invited Allard to speak in his special 700 series course “The American University Presidency.” Allard’s lecture was ostensibly to highlight the relationship between lobbyists and higher education, although he did a good job defending lobbying in general.

Shag from Brookline October 21, 2009 at 7:10 am

Maybe most lobbyists belong to the National League of Lobbyists where the revolving door may be dizzying. In any event, a code of ethics that is not enforced has little value. If an attorney pushes the boundaries too much, enforcement may result – and complaints may be triggered from outside bar associations.

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