Lobbying Spending or Social Connections?

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The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein nails it on the head in this post on lobbying:

…I worry much more about the people than the money. Let the banks spend money. But when you’ve got 54 former staffers from the relevant committees and 33 former chiefs of staff and more than 200 former congressmen, you’re talking about something much more effective than spending: You’re talking about social relationships. People return e-mails and take calls and listen closely to the people they know. …

If the banks spent $600 million but had to hire people who’d never met a congressional staffer in their life, I wouldn’t worry about them for two seconds. The fact that they can hire pretty much everyone who ever worked for a previous Congress makes this a much more serious problem.

Emphasis added. People make way too big of a deal about how much a given company spends lobbying. The real issue is not how much are groups spending on lobbying, but who is lobbying whom. If you’re America’s Health Insurance Plans and Sen. Max Baucus is leading the health care reform effort in Congress, it makes sense to hire his former chief of staff. If you’re a financial firm or trade group you would want to hire former staffers to Rep. Barney Frank or Sen. Chris Dodd or former members of Congress with relevant experience and connections. The spending number don’t matter, but the numbers of former government employees does.

My colleague Bill Allison wrote an explanation of how useless lobbying spending numbers can be. Different organizations abide by different definitions of lobbying under the law and therefore disclose differing sums of money. According to Allison, “The Chamber [of Commerce] elects to report how much it spends on lobbying using section 162(e) of the Internal Revenue Code, which says that businesses can’t deduct lobbying expenses and then defines what lobbying is.” That definition includes “any attempt to influence the general public, or segments thereof, with respect to elections, legislative matters, or referendums.” In following this rule the Chamber reports their massive issue advertisement campaigns on their lobbying disclosures. This makes their lobbying disclosures impossible to compare next to another group that does not include this kind of spending in their lobbying disclosures.

If lobbying spending numbers were to actually be useful for the public, expenditures ought to be itemized with a minimum threshold for disclosure. Of course, this raises a whole host of other questions. For now, the key is to focus on the WHO of lobbying, which invariably leads to the WHOM they are lobbying. Disclosure of lobbying contacts is the only way to ease the public anxiety about the casual corruption of social connections in the lobbying profession.

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  • You say that analyzing lobbying expenditures doesn’t help to curb improper influence, and what we should be paying attention to is “who” is doing the actual lobbying.

    Wouldn’t it be useful to put at least some of our attention on how effective the lobbying activity is (regardless of who does it and how much is spent)?

    As an aside, at the end of your post you state that disclosing more information on lobbying contacts will “ease” the public anxiety. It seems to me that this might have the opposite effect (though I support disclosing it).