Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lobbyists in the Washington Ecosystem

One of the stated goals of Senator Barack Obama's campaign for President is to reduce the power of special interests in Washington and return control of the government to the American people. Lobbyists are the conduit carrying special interest influence into government. According to, over 2 billion dollars has been spent on lobbying each year since 2003. Senator Obama's efforts in the Senate include modifying rules to prevent lobbyists from sending gifts to Representatives, and forcing them to disclose who they raise money for. I think it is important to fully understand the role lobbyists play in Washington so we can take further steps to reduce the control they have over the legislative process.

A good place to start is this anecdotal article by John Dickerson at Slate. Dickerson relates a conversation he had with a lobbyist friend who explains that he and his colleagues rarely, if ever, explicitly trade votes for money. Their sway comes from the information they provide to Capitol Hill staffers who either don't have the time, or as Dickerson suggests, motivation, to find themselves. The book, Tribes on the Hill: The United States Congress -- Rituals and Realities by J. McIver Weatherford, verifies this role of the lobbyist as the information broker:

They explain the details of bills, supply computer analyses of how an issue affects different parts of the constituency, and which groups oppose or support the issue with how much enthusiasm. As John Kennedy described them, "Lobbyist are in many cases expert technicians and capable of explaining complex and difficult subjects in a clear, understandable fashion." Among the specific tasks lobbyists perform, Kennedy listed preparing briefs and legislative analyses as well as writing legislation.

Why are staffers calling lobbyists for their information? Is John Dickerson right in that the staffers are just being lazy, or is it that they just don't have the time or resources necessary to do the job? The Washington, DC law firm Meyers and Associates offer this explanation:

In many cases, lobbyists serve as an "extension" of a congressional office staff. Given the hundreds of bills and amendments introduced during each legislative session, it's impossible for legislators to gauge the potential effects that each may have on affected groups or individuals. Lobbyists assist staff by communicating often complicated issues and by knowing how to break an issue down into relatively small and simple parts. The goal is to simplify the learning process of the Member and/or congressional staff person, yet provide them with accurate and timely information. In this regard, lobbyists perform a valuable service not only to their client but to the staff and Members of Congress as well.
While I could believe John Dickerson if he were pointing to a few Congressional staffers who were lazy, I doubt that this explanation applies to all of them. I think it is more likely that the volume of bills and amendments that pass through a Congressperson's office is too much for the staff to handle by themselves. Still, do we want industry supported lobbyists to be the resources used by Congressional offices to fill in the gaps?  I believe that the party organization is much better suited to fill this advisory role.  By hiring large numbers of policy professionals, the parties themselves can provide the information and policy development resources necessary to guide a legislative effort.  While lobbyists would still be important for organizing funds and interests, they would cease to be the information source of first resort, and that would allow legislators to better serve the whole of their constituency.

Such an undertaking would be expensive, according to the Washington post, top lobbyists can earn from a quarter to a half a million dollars a year. It would take hundreds of these professionals to create an institution that would have a meaningful impact. Still, the Obama campaign is collecting over a million dollars a day. Senator Obama has reminded his supporters that he will need their efforts to bring about change both before, during and after the Presidential election.  If we want to reduce the power of the special interests, we have to be prepared to fill in the void that this would create.  This means we will have to be active and supportive in the creation of our party institutions.

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