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Democracy Behind the Numbers

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Numbers can go a long way toward telling the story of money in politics. Of the top 100 spenders in Washington on lobbying, for instance, 95 are business organizations. This reality isn’t all that shocking, given the media and pop culture narratives about the political invincibility (real or perceived) of corporations from Comcast to banks deemed too big to fail.

But as Lee Drutman, author of The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate, numbers only offer a partial picture of how lobbying works. Because although the largest and most active of American companies spend upwards of $10 million a year hiring small armies of lobbyists, they don’t always get what they want—and to focus on those numbers is to neglect the historical and organizational factors at play in the unprecedented rise of business lobbying. What makes Drutman’s book unique is its deployment of numbers and data alongside qualitative and anecdotal evidence gathered via many original interviews with corporate lobbyists.

The upshot of the book is that the reality of corporate lobbying is more complex than meets the eye. “There’s an old saying in Washington,” Drutman—a Political Reform Senior Fellow—quipped at a recent event at New America, where he spoke about his book with NPR Power, Money, and Influence Correspondent Peter Overby. “If you’re not at the table, then you’re probably on the menu.” Today, the biggest companies are “increasingly buying up every seat at every table and increasingly they’re writing the menus.” For every dollar that public interest groups or labor unions spend on lobbying, cited Drutman, “corporations now spend $34.”

At the same time, using a slightly mixed metaphor, Drutman noted that having control of the menu hasn’t made politics into a vending machine for corporate interests, offering “shrink-wrapped policy outcomes” to anyone with crisp dollar bills. As business has built up its dominance of the lobbying process, that process’s dysfunction has also ballooned. Individual businesses fight each other directly for attention and influence, which “creates an environment where if anybody gets what they want it’s most likely to be large corporations and it also makes the status quo a lot harder to change.” As a result, the overall political capacity of the government has been diminished.

In his book, Drutman does more than diagnose the problem—he traces its historical roots and demonstrates its impact on those who once had seats that the table. “If you took your time machine and went back to the 1960s, you’d find very few companies with lobbyists here in Washington,” he pointed out. Organizations like the Businesses Roundtable (formed in 1972) and the Chamber of Commerce began a vigorous campaign to expand their influence in the wake of federal regulatory expansion in the 1960s (including the formation of various agencies like the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency).

Facing rising compliance costs that stemmed from the growth in federal regulation and staring down what their leaders viewed as an “existential threat” to free enterprise, corporations for the first time really invested in Washington—they hired lobbyists and they started winning key victories. “I can remember…[in the late 1970s]—all of a sudden, there were a lot of BMWs around. It hadn’t been that way, and then it was,” recalled Overby, who said his father was a lobbyist for a trade association in the 1960s.

Telling this history of lobbying uncovers what Drutman identified as a fundamental ideological and structural shift in the relationship between business and government. As the number of lobbyists has grown and the nature of the process has changed, business lobbying has become increasingly proactive and ambitious. Largely dispensing with the small-government, hands-off approach to government traditionally ascribed to business and industry, “it’s gone from ‘leave us alone’ to ‘let’s work on this together.’”

As corporate lobbying has expanded the scope of the process, making any impact increasingly requires “more, more, more” – “you have to do more lobbying, build more coalitions, talk to more people, mobilize grassroots, get op-eds.” And not everyone has the resources to push their political capacities to keep pace—including Congress itself, which accounts for just 0.06 percent of our national budget and sports only a third of the committee staff it had during the 1980s. “Sarcastic observers often complain that we have the best Congress money can buy,” Drutman observed. “I actually think it’s quite the opposite.” Under the current system, Congress can’t conduct basic functions without considerable support from outside lobbyists.

“Lobbying has a self-reinforcing quality,” Drutman pointed out, and “resources really do matter.” In his analysis, staffers “turn to lobbyists because they don’t know what the heck they’re doing and that’s the real power of corporate lobbying in Washington.” Overby concurred and—citing a childhood conversation with his father—suggested that the boom in the business lobby might have exacerbated a longer-standing dynamic in place since the 1960s. “I remember when I was trying to figure out what he [my father] did [for a living], one of the first things he said was, ‘We explain the situation—we explain everything to the Congressional staff.’ So even then there was a certain amount of that going on.”

Drutman insisted that his intention was not to “demonize lobbyists. They are an important part of the policy process and provide a lot of information and policy expertise, but my worry is that they have become too central to the policy process.” And, as Overby teased out in the discussion, we can see ripple effects of the growth of lobbying from the halls of power to the culture of Washington itself. The process of enacting any policy change—getting a bill through Congress, devising implementation strategy, building bipartisan coalitions that can effectively craft messages for the public—is nearly impossible “to do on a shoestring.”

The Business of America is Lobbying identifies a clear need to diversify the seating chart at the tables of power. As it stands now, Drutman said, we have “left advocacy up to the market. Economic winners reinvest their profits into lobbying and economic losers don’t. That’s the reality.” As the process of and market for lobbying has grown more and more calcified and intractable, “a market failure is now becoming a democratic failure and I think we ought to do something about that.”

Overby was particularly intrigued by Drutman’s idea for an office of public lobbying, which could expand representation in the lobbying process to make it more inclusive. Operating on a model of a public defenders’ office, a public lobbying entity would provide access to all kinds of groups who currently have trouble getting any attention and would—at a structural level—embody a commitment to the ideal (similar to the justice system, at its best) that “as a society, we benefit when all sides of the argument have the capacity to put forward their best case.”

Author:

Jane Greenway Carr is an opinion editor at CNN.com. She was previously an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow and a Contributing Editor at New America, where she helped to produce The Weekly Wonk.