Shadow Lobbyists and the Revolving Door, or what Anthony Weiner and Newt Gingrich Have in Common

by John Sides on May 6, 2013

in Interest Groups,Legislative Politics

We welcome this guest post by James Madison political scientist Tim LaPira.  A previous post on Tim’s work is here.

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What do Anthony Weiner and Newt Gingrich have in common?  They both served in Congress.  While there, they both became outspoken partisans, albeit on opposite sides of the aisle.  They both abruptly resigned from Congress due to revelations of what I will graciously call “personal indiscretions.”  They then went on to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year consulting corporations on the inner workings of Washington’s policy process.

And neither of them have ever registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) as a lobbyist.

Indeed, they both went so far as to stipulate in their contracts that they were not “lobbying.”  And they were right.  Kind of.  I think we can all assume that these two weren’t sought after for their keen business acumen.  After all, they both had primarily earned a living on a government salary up to the point they became lobbyists strategic policy consultants.

Gingrich was called out for his non-lobbying “historical advice” during the 2012 Republican nomination contest, which prompted columns and op-eds like this and this.  And just yesterday Micheal Barbaro’s profile of Weiner noted how his “rapid rise from disgraced lawmaker to in-demand strategic consultant demonstrates the enduring power of Washington’s revolving door.”

Cases like these motivate pundits to write opinion pieces condemning the revolving door and shadow lobbyists by pointing out what is often referred to as the “Daschle Loophole” in the LDA.   They can elude the law’s registration requirement by simply interpreting the strict statutory definition of “lobbyist” as not applying to them.  That is, so long as they are not spending 20% of their time—think one full day in a normal work week—on behalf of any single client for an entire quarter, then they do not need to register or report their lobbying activities.  Think about that: do you ever spend one full day per week for three months straight working on any one project at work?  As law professor William V. Luneberg, Jr. notes, “You can do a hell of a lot of lobbying for somebody when you’re only doing 19 percent of your time for the client.”

So the LDA loophole is not new.  In fact, OpenSecrets.org has shown that under-the-radar lobbyists are on the rise.  But stealth lobbying and the revolving door tend to get the media’s attention only with high profile cases like Gingrich and Weiner.  When it does, the reporting tends to beg two key questions: how common is it for lobbyists to have gone through the revolving door? And just how many unregistered lobbyists are there in the “influence industry?”  My co-author Herschel (Trey) Thomas and I have some relevant (hopefully not too relevant) research on this here and here.

Based on our sample of about 1,600 registered lobbyists, we find that 52% had once worked in the federal government, mostly in Congress.  These revolving door lobbyists tend to have a more diverse clientele and to work on a much wider range of issues than others, suggesting that they are more likely selling “access” to former employers in government than they are using highly specialized policy expertise (which would instead lead them to attract clients from one or a few economic sectors, and to work on a single policy area).  Only about 1% of them are former members of Congress (though, it’s likely that one in two former lawmakers become lobbyists after leaving office).

Our second study is based on a random sample of “policy advocates” drawn from Lobbyists.info, the leading commercial directory of government affairs professionals.  This sample includes both registered and unregistered (shadow) lobbyists.  We find that shadow lobbyists actually outnumbered registered lobbyists in 2012.  That is, there are now more stealth lobbyists—roughly 13,000 by our conservative estimate—than there are those who register under the LDA.  Registered or not, still only about 1% served in Congress.  So, though Gingrich, Daschle, and Weiner tend to be the most notable examples of what’s wrong with lobbying transparency, they are far from alone.

Why does any of this matter?  Obviously the LDA falls far short of the open government and transparency ideal.  That’s Congress’s fault, not the lobbyists.  The overwhelming majority of lobbyists are not Jack Abramoff (gated).  They are honest and ethical, and they play a key role in representing people’s interests before government.

But that is not to say that they represent interests equally before government.  Baumgartner and colleagues show that having “covered official” lobbyists on your side is the only factor, other than having high-ranking officials inside government, that predicts “policy success” in a lobbying campaign.  Blanes i Vidal and colleagues (gated) find that revolving door lobbyists earn significantly more money than others.  And  Bertrand and colleagues show that revolving door lobbyists substitute the issues they work on when their former congressional employer switches committee assignments.  It’s not likely that any of these things would occur if revolving door lobbyists were valuable solely for their substantive policy expertise.

So, the revolving door appears to distort political representation and policy responsiveness.  But social scientists have yet to fully explain why.  One thing is for sure: the more lobbyists go into the shadows, the less likely it is that we’ll ever be able to.

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