So, I went to the Influencing Congress Conference today and found a lot to bring back here to you, the readers. One of the more fascinating panelists was Andrew Stark, a law professor at the University of Toronto and the author of the book The Conflict of Interest in American Life. He had a lot to say about lobbyists and their relationships with legislators – much of the views he stated I had not heard before. Continue below the fold to read about it.
Stark asked what makes us uncomfortable about the relationship between legislators and lobbyists. There are two lobbyist-legislator relationships that make us uncomfortable, he said. One is the lobbyist with money. We fear that the legislator who accepts gifts and large campaign contributions from the lobbyist with money will make decisions based on his/her benefactor’s wishes. Second, we fear the lobbyist with information who, like the snake in the Garden, might convince the legislator to change his beliefs. However, as Stark notes, the inverse is what should actually worry us. It is actually money that can change beliefs and information that can make a legislator feel like s/he owes a debt.
The kind of money that makes a legislator change their beliefs is not big money, but small money. The cheap dinner or the couple of drinks makes the legislator much more sympathetic to the lobbyist than tens of thousands in campaign contributions. Bio-ethicists studied psychiatrists and the gifts that pharmaceutical companies gave them. It turned out that expensive gifts turned the psychiatrists off while small gifts made the psychiatrists say favorable things about the drug and promote its use. A small gift doesn’t make a legislator feel like he owes the lobbyist a favor but it can make them warm to the lobbyist’s point of view.
In the case of the lobbyist with information the legislator feels like he owes a debt to the lobbyist because the lobbyist holds a privileged place in the world of information in Washington. Jeff Birnbaum, the Washington Post K Street journalist, later explained the role that the lobbyist plays in today’s Washington. Birnbaum explains that the lobbyist, who used to be an outsider, is the ultimate insider. The lobbyist is the resident, the “expert in a transient city.” Stark cited a study by two political scientists, Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff, who found that lobbyists constantly write the laws and regulations that legislators need. They provide an essential service that would create a huge budgetary problem if they did not exist. Therefore the lobbyist with information does not affect the legislators sincerity, but instead makes the legislator feel that they owe the lobbyist for his essential service.