How much does lobbying matter?

Politico is reporting (“K Street: ‘Let’s meet’; Hill staffers: ‘Text me‘”) the highlights of an in-depth study of lobbying practices and how they are received on the Hill. The report compiled input from over 2,200 lobbyists and 700 Congressional staffers. The study sounds really interesting but costs $597, a price that only a lobbyist could love.

One interesting finding is that more than one in five congressional staffers said lobbyists have little or no influence at all and less than two in five agreed with the idea (held by four out of five lobbyists) to be very influential. Congressional staffer may not want to admit how often they are influenced and lobbyists are inclined to overestimate their importance.

Where to congressional staffers turn for information? In the study, 30 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans consult lobbyists when researching public policy issues and 30 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats almost always consult constituents. It may seem alarming to see congress turning to lobbyists for advice. However, congressional votes turn on relatively technical issues that constituents. Further, as the graph below suggests, staffers are most likely to turn to those lobbyists who have given them accurate information in the past.

Members of congress know their constituents and a conservative member is not going to rely on the advice of a liberal lobbyist in making decisions. A lobbyist serving as a source of information does not mean that they are a source of influence.

I spent time with lobbyists researching a book on White House relations with Congress since almost everyone who works as a lobbyist for the White House goes on to make big bucks as a lobbyist for the private sector. I learned that there are two types of lobbyists when it comes to access to key decision makers: the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots sit in the waiting room with other unimportant people (me), hoping to get a few minutes with the member of Congress or  a staffers. Members of Congress stop to chat with the haves. I had a senator stop by to chat while I was interviewing a lobbyist in one of the areas behind the Senate chamber.  On another occasion, I was interviewing on lobbyist in his office when the chair of a House committee called the lobbyists. I have always suspected that lobbyists on average have almost no influence but that a handful of lobbyists have the connection and credibility to have some real influence.

Another key to understanding the influence of lobbyists is that they have the most influence when we’re paying the least attention. Most of these lobbyists are talking to legislators about issue most of us haven’t thought about. Even if they don’t have much influence on what we consider important issues, they may have a huge impact on the issues of interest to the organized interests they represent. Tax loopholes come from someplace.

So, the question of how much influence lobbyists have is complicated and we need to understand how they work in order to judge how effective they are.

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