Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of ‘The Business of America is Lobbying’

by Norman Ball

(This interview appeared previously in Dissident Voice and Counterpunch in slightly abridged forms).

When it comes to lobbying, it’s high time we dropped the pejorative and embraced the agnostic.

Lee-Drutman-Thumb

New America Senior Fellow Lee Drutman’s new book The Business of America Is Lobbying deprives the reader of ready characterizations. It also robs us of the illicit fun of knee-jerk demonization.

Instead of shifty-eyed politicians huddled in the shadows with Gucci Gulch lobbyists, we’re presented with a faceless and highly competitive industry employing, “…several thousand individuals across almost 2,000 different lobbying firms, all of whose livelihoods depend on them retaining existing clients and/or acquiring new ones.” How drab. How familiar. Sounds like pharmaceuticals. Or telecommunication. Sounds like business.

For those seeking a screenplay sequel to Casino Jack, please venture elsewhere. This book is for grown-ups intent on grown-up solutions. Sound, practical reforms require the early spadework of empirical analysis. Drutman is careful not to offer prescriptive remedies. The real job of this book is to point out areas of inquiry on the road to possible future shifts in public policy.

Drutman was kind enough to fire back at ten of our most impertinent questions. This exchange barely scratches the surface of what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently called, “a vitally important book everyone who cares about America must read”—a glowing recommendation this interviewer shares.

Question 1: Thanks Lee for spending some time with us. First of all, this is not a test. It will not go on your permanent record and we grade on an ideological curve. Still, if you wish to submit your answers in No2 pencil, that’s fine.

Early on in the book, you suggest how a reluctant business sector felt compelled to answer the progressive activism of the 60s with its own lobbying counter-offensive. Over the ensuing decades, this counteroffensive has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, the TPP being but a recent and egregious example of corporate activism run amuck. Does the Left bear some culpability for ‘corporatizing’ the civic space?

Answer: I once posed a gentler version of this question to Ralph Nader, who was, of course, the key leader on much of the progressive activism in the 1960s. He told me that he never anticipated the magnitude of the lobbying counter-offensive. And how could he? Nothing like that had ever taken place in American history. What began in the business community in the 1970s was something new, a level of organization and resources never before seen. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the 1960s left for not anticipating the magnitude of the counter-response.

Question 2: You cite a wonderful E.E. Schattschneider quote: “The flaw in the pluralist heaven chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.” Today, this accent can be detected in what you call the Countervailing Power Ratio, the ratio of lobbying dollars spent by business versus those spent, “by diffuse interest groups and labor unions combined”. This ratio expanded from 22:1 in 1998 to 34:1 in 2012. And yet, the Supreme Court assures us money is a form of speech, at least in the world of campaign finance. Do you see ways to constitutionally rein in this ratio?

Answer: I think trying to “rein in” activity is a tricky proposition. One, it’s generally on shaky constitutional ground, especially given the current majority on the Supreme Court. And two, because it involves drawing legal lines, actors determined to participate will find ways around those lines.

Personally, I’m more interested in leveling up strategies. I worry that the more we try to circumscribe lobbying by putting strict limits on it, the more we wind up limiting lobbying to the moneyed interests who can hire the lawyers to find the loopholes and who can afford the compliance costs, while discouraging more diffuse interests who worry about breaking laws and therefore just don’t participate.

I already see many progressives being cautious in their Washington advocacy precisely to avoid having to call themselves “lobbyists.” I’d rather see the same energy devoted to amplifying the voices of diffuse interests, not more barriers to discourage them from participating because the laws are complex and the penalties tough. I often say that the solution to our lobbying problem is MORE rather than less lobbying.

Question 3: To be sure, the marked ‘deterioration’ of the ratio sounds like cause for populist alarm. Yet the adage ‘money buys elections’ is not empirically self-evident. I realize we’re mixing metaphors here a bit, moving from lobbying to campaign finance, but Sheldon Adelson’s track record is spotty at best despite his massive cash outlays. Are you suggesting there’s some empirical basis or linear function within the lobbying business wherein one dollar of lobbying actually purchases one dollar of favorable outcome?

Answer: As you say, we’re moving into campaign contributions here, and it’s important to make a distinction between campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures. Obviously, they are related, but companies spend on average 13 times more on lobbying than they do on PAC contributions. Wealthy individuals dominate campaign contributions. Now, some wealthy individuals are linked to corporations, but as you note, all Sheldon Adelson’s money didn’t help him get the online casino ban he sought, and it probably hurt him.

There is no one-to-one relationship between campaign contributions and favorable outcomes. There is no one-to-one relationship between campaign expenditures and electoral outcomes. But, money is not irrelevant. On the money-buys-outcomes story, campaign contributions help access, and access is necessary for influence. But it’s possible to have access without making contributions, and plenty of actors have access but no influence.

Or perhaps more simply: by making a contribution, you are buying a ticket to the main event. But there are far more tickets for sale than there are prizes.

Question 4: At another point, you suggest the steady increase in lobbying expenditures may be more a function of the lobbying industry’s success convincing clients that they, the lobbing firms, are the procuring cause for legislative victories. These claimed victories go on to justify larger budgets the following year. I’m back wondering whether we‘re sometimes too quick to equate power with money. Corporate lobbying could simply be a huge mal-investment. Do we fret in vain?

Answer: This is where a lot of people get tripped up. They assume that either lobbying pays off or it doesn’t. But these aren’t the only two possibilities because “lobbying” is not one thing. There are thousands of organizations lobbying for thousands of different issues. Some lobbying will work, some of it will not work. Certainly, there are things you can do to improve your chances of getting what you want, but there is no guaranteed formula for success. There is a political process that involves more than just adding up who spends more money on lobbying or who gives more in campaign contributions.

It’s like the old saw about advertising: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” In lobbying, it may be even more. But corporate managers never know in advance what will pay off and what won’t. And while they don’t know the optimal level of lobbying at the high end, there are enough examples of companies being caught off-guard by politics and enough examples of companies getting favorable outcomes that they know the optimal level of lobbying is not zero.

But, here’s the key point: because lobbyists have a strong self-interest in continuing to get paid for their work and they want to expand their business, they have a strong case to convince companies that lobbying matters, and the more you do, the more likely it is to pay off. This may involve an exaggeration, but, on average, it’s not a lie. And since lobbying is competitive, the costs are constantly increasing.

Question 5: Ah for the good old days of making real stuff when competition actually drove costs down. You make a fascinating case for the drive towards what you call particularism, the waning of aggregated trade association influence for the legislative objectives of a specific company. At one point you suggest, “if every lobbyist wants to have something he can point to as his, this leads to more complex policy.” In the next paragraph you suggest, “as companies increase their political capacity, they tend to become more ambitious.” These conclusions seem inconsistent, if not contradictory. What’s really driving particularism, client ambition or the lobbying industry’s self-interested penchant for complexity? Or both?

Answer: The two feed on each other. Particularism produces more complexity, because it’s more complicated to write a tax code where every industry has its own benefit. But once you have a tax code with a bunch of specialized benefits, companies want their own benefits and lobbyists can plausibly sell companies on this possibility. As the tax code becomes more complex, tax lobbying experts get better at navigating it, and the whole process feeds on itself. Client ambition comes from what is plausible. But today’s plausibility is the result of yesterday’s ambition. Which results from the previous day’s plausibility, and so on.

Question 6: What kind of reception has your idea received for bringing more expertise into Congress itself, thus lessening the reliance on outside lobbying conduits? This would include raising Congressional salaries, drawing more brain power from the private to the public sector, etc. I’d imagine this doesn’t please Tea Party and small government types.

For example, Right-wing Libertarian Charles Murray monitors the Code of Federal Regulations which expanded in the 1960-2012 period from 23,000 to 175,000 pages. He tends to portray the private sector as being the victim of this regulatory onslaught. But might they—or at least their discretionary, self-financed lobbying campaigns—be the instigators instead?

Answer: The idea of bringing more expertise into government has received widespread support so far. It’s one of those things that’s obvious when you think about it. Anybody who has worked in government gets this immediately. Even lobbyists are frustrated with the lack of expertise in government. They don’t like relying on 24-year-olds with virtually no experience. I’ve even had some support for this idea for libertarian and small-government types, who recognize that if you want to simplify government, it requires expertise. They are not fans of letting self-interested corporate lobbyists run the show either!

Question 7: Complexity and careerism seem to go hand-in-hand. In a sense, complexity is the ‘corporate goodwill’ a congressional staffer accrues and carries over to his second career as a private lobbyist. Thus it behooves the ambitious staffer to shun clarity and simplicity. In essence the nation’s laws are unreadable because, well, popular comprehension is not an overriding objective. Is effective legislation big enough to serve both the Peoples’ Will and the career aspirations of those who draft it? Or is that too cynical?

Answer: I disagree with the claim made here, that congressional staffers deliberately make legislation more complex in order to increase their value as lobbyists later in their career. For one, public policy is already complex enough, and expertise is already hard enough to gain (and therefore valuable). For another, I don’t think congressional staffers are that calculating, and the vast majority don’t become lobbyists anyway. For a third, experienced congressional staffers will get lobbying jobs primarily based on their networks and knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the political process, more than their policy expertise. Finally, the complexity is the result of a political process where large numbers of interests all try to have their say, and many do. Complexity is the path of least resistance. Simplicity is much harder.

Question 7: Points taken on my overbaked cynicism. But is there not the faintest whiff of resignation in the all too ready abandonment of simplicity? We have—by broad, bewildering consensus—consigned ourselves to a complexity that practically all actors acknowledge is ill-conceived. Sounds like the democratic sausage machine is churning away in a manner counter to all interests. I’d add that complexity theorists equate complexity with increased vulnerability.

Doesn’t your own argument first acknowledge, then quietly acquiesce, to this manufactured complexity? You say the, “increasing complexity and specialization of policy makes this public-private gap in expertise all the more consequential…” However the gap, though consequential, is contrived. Why not first undertake an effort to stamp out gratuitous complexity before simply enlarging Congress to accept ‘complexity-padded’ legislation?

Answer: I’m all for making public policy simpler. I believe you’d have a strong left-right coalition around simplifying the U.S. Code. But it’s a very hard problem, because it means that some of the existing winners will become losers. And they will fight against those changes with all they’ve got. It requires incredible resources to simplify public policy. This, by the way, is a conservative case for more expertise in government. Simplification is hard work, and requires considerable expertise.

Question 8: You do an effective job of taking the pejorative out of lobbying and making it a profession among other professions. What’s the reception been in the lobbying industry to the book?

Answer: The lobbyists I’ve talked to seem to like this book, probably for precisely the reason you’ve mentioned. I honestly believe that lobbyists serve an important function in our democratic system by extending the potential knowledge base of government, and I don’t think we get anywhere productive by demonizing them. I think there are a number of smart and thoughtful lobbyists who have genuine concerns about the state of American democracy and are important potential allies in improving our democracy. Obviously, government has gone too far in outsourcing expertise to corporate lobbyists. But the optimal level of corporate lobbying is not zero.

Question 9: This question may hark back more to your Sunlight Foundation tenure and issues of transparency which your book doesn’t really address. But, what additional steps do you foresee in the areas of disclosure, ethics and enforcement? Are you happy with HLOGA in its present form?

Answer: HLOGA is fine, but I’ve become more and more convinced that the problem is not the regulation of lobbying. The problems are 1) we have a Congress that lacks the institutional capacity and expertise to effectively make policy and therefore relies considerably on the expertise and legal skills provided by the lobbying community; and 2) that lobbying community increasingly represents large corporations far and above any other potentially countervailing forces. This is not a problem of ethics or disclosure or enforcement. It is a problem of resources and imbalances among those resources. It’s tempting to think if only we get the right enforcement, or the right disclosure, things will work better, because those are in many respects easier tweaks. But we’ve got to do deeper. And again, large companies can bear the compliance costs of more rules and stricter enforcements. Smaller diffuse interest lobbies may decide they cannot, especially if the risks are increased.

Question 10: Echoing political scientist Sheldon Wolin, Chris Hedges has been mentioning inverted totalitarianism a lot lately. If in fact, at some structural level, corporate interests have captured the mechanics of government from within, do we belabor a constitutional anachronism (petitioned grievances, etc.) that has long since fallen victim to a behind-the-scenes coup? Beyond public-private spending disparities, is there really an actionable forum for public grievances anymore?

Answer: I refuse to lose faith. There are still an impressive number of very progressive members of Congress. And it is still possible to make genuine public-spirited laws and implement and enforce them. I don’t believe that the current levels of inequality are sustainable for a democracy, and we are entering a new era of economic populism in response. To assume that there is no actionable forum for change is to give up, which guarantees that there will be no change.

Question 11: Hmm, you breach the empirical to express faith in change. Some would suggest we already inhabit an immutable and expropriating Panopticon. Thus it becomes an exercise in irrationally exuberant faith, a form of madness, to persist in the mantra of change since material change is no longer possible. But I’m rhetorically musing. Your faith that democracy is reviving after a prolonged, cyclical nadir is duly noted and will be a solace to many.

Okay, we’re cheating with an eleventh question. Since we don’t want you to feel as though you’ve just been dragged through a deposition, we’d like to end on a note of popcorn and sticky shoes: Suppose your book defies all expectations and becomes a Casino Jack-esque movie sequel. Who would you like to have play you in the film?

Answer: How about Andrew Garfield? Though, I’m not counting on a movie anytime soon. I’ll have to write a novel about Washington lobbying for that.

N: We’ll have Andrew’s guy call your guy just in case. True to your academic bona fides Lee, you’ve succeeded in removing the demagogic punch bowl from our midst. I hope you’re pleased with yourself. We thank you both for our new sobriety on the issue of lobbying and your generous allotment of time.

L: Thanks, Norm. I enjoyed it.

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Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of ‘The Business of America is Lobbying’

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