(this is post #4 in a series on money and influence in politics)
John Breaux spent his first 33 years in Washington as a member of Congress. Originally elected to the House in 1972 at the tender age of 28, he became a Senator in 1987. When he retired in 2005, he began working as a lobbyist at Patton Boggs.
He now represents a number of very important corporate clients, including AT&T, Chevron, Northrop Grumman, and Tyson Foods, and several industry trade associations, and owns his own firm with Trent Lott, another former Senator.
What is it that makes Breaux valuable as a lobbyist?
For one, he has a lot of personal relationships. There are a lot of folks on Capitol Hill who will return his phone calls and listen to what he has to say simply because they know him and consider him friend.
Breaux also knows where a lot of different members of Congress are likely to stand on a broad range of issues. If he has an issue he wants to push, he knows who he can get to help him and what makes that person tick. He also knows who might be against him, and how to potentially neutralize that member. And he also has issue expertise, having served in Congress 33 years.
Not every lobbyist is a former member of Congress (though according to the Center for Public Integrity, there were 175 former House members and 34 former Senators were registered to lobby in 2004). But there are a lot of former staffers and executive branch officials in the ranks of lobbying. According to the same report: “More than 2,200 former federal government employees registered as federal lobbyists between 1998 and 2004.”
Consider a recent Washington piece on how some 350 former Hill people are lobbying their ex-colleagues on healthcare: “Familiar Players in Health Bill Lobbying: Firms are Enlisting Ex-Lawmakers Aides.”
Or consider Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus in particular. The Sunlight Foundation has shown how five former Baucus staffers now represent 27 organizations with interest in the healthcare reform bill.
In my interviews with lobbyists, I noticed a pretty standard career path. Most started out in government. But at some point they realized they need to make more money – and also work a little less, so they could spend time with their kids. One lobbyist put it this way:
The Hill’s very interesting place to work. A lot folks do that in 20s and 30s. But by the time they get into their 40s, they decide it’s time to get a real job.
I think the implications of this are actually potentially somewhat profound.
It’s not just that these lobbyists have access. It also means there is a constant transfer of experience and expertise and rolodexes and process know-how from the public sector to the private sector.
These people are then replaced by somebody less senior, with less experience (possibly their former subordinate). This hasn’t been well-studied, but it ought to be. It is, I would venture, a very important source of lobbyist influence.
(Of course, there are also many lobbyists who haven’t worked in government, but also have been around Washington long enough to have built up many relationships and friendships as well. These relationships are very important.)
A second important (and often over-looked) aspect of lobbyist influence is simply the importance of lobbyist information and expertise. In my last post, I pulled a quote from lobbyist Thomas Susman. It is worth repeating:
Government has become sufficiently complex that, without the information lobbyists bring to legislators, decision-making would be – at best – poorly informed.
Capitol Hill is largely full by bright and enthusiastic, but generally young and over-extended staffers who don’t have time/experience to be experts in much. Few members even develop much expertise on anything more than one or two issues, if that. This leaves it to the lobbyists to be the ones to explain.
Again, healthcare: really complex. Financial regulation: really complex. Lots of issues: really complex.
Lobbyists work really hard to be helpful, accessible, and go to great lengths to make sure members and staffers “understand” the issues, and know about all the “unintended consequences” certain legislation might have.
There has been some research on the importance of lobbyists as experts. Kevin Esterling, for example, has an excellent book on the subject, The Political Economy of Expertise, in which he finds (among other things) technical expertise helps lobbyists gain access. Though my general take is that he is a bit overly optimistic that there will be adequate advocacy on both sides of an issue.
And this takes me to a lead-in to my next post, which is going to be on the question of bias.
In this current post, I’ve tried to make the case that personal relationships and information are both significant sources of access, and are probably far more important than money. (As a third important source of access, I could also add constituent ties).
Again, I’m not saying that access guarantees influence. But if a corporation or any outside interest hires a well-connected lobbyist to make a persuasive case, bring in some real expertise, and come up with an informed strategy for victory, that probably helps.
However, all of this may not matter that much in the end. It is, after all, possible that access and expertise on one side is balanced by access and expertise on the other side (as Esterling and others have suggested).
And in certain instances, it may well be the case. But overall, I think the evidence is pretty clear there is not a whole lot of balance in the world of lobbying, and this is kind of a problem. Details to follow.