Three Fixes For Our Lobbyist Problem

In recent weeks, John McCain and Barack Obama have sparred over the role of lobbyists in their campaigns. While both are eager to position themselves as the candidate of reform, neither has proposed a plan that tackles the real sources of lobbyists' power. Real lobbying reform must start by acknowledging that control of information is as central to lobbyists' power as control of money.

To be sure, the fact that lobbyists contribute to campaigns and even help run them is important in building valuable relationships and goodwill. But relationships and goodwill only go so far. They may lead to improved access, but access is hardly an exclusive quantity these days and is far, far from a guarantee of victory.

Lobbyists are influential because, as the main providers of policy information and expertise to policymakers, they increasingly define the terms of political debate. Even if we funded all elections publicly and banned lobbyists from running campaigns, they would still play a major role in the legislative processes for a simple reason: They know a lot of stuff. Increasingly, it is even lobbyists who are drafting the laws. Lobbyists like to say that Washington couldn't function without them. They may be right.

Policymaking, after all, is complicated business these days. Understanding most issues, especially those affecting business, now requires a level of expertise that, as generalists by necessity, few members of Congress possess. Even their staffers typically cover far too much ground to develop substantive expertise on anything in particular and rarely stay in one position long enough to overcome this handicap.

Staffers are also generally paid poorly to work long hours. As a result, once a staffer has developed some real proficiency in an area, the lobbying firms who inevitably come calling can offer triple or quadruple his or her salary for fewer hours of work. It's a hard offer to resist, especially for staffers who are feeling a little burnt out and trying to start a family.

And so, everywhere you turn on Capitol Hill, there are now large smiling teams of industry lobbyists committed to making themselves as "helpful" as possible -- providing information and research to policymakers and staffers (often the lobbyists' former colleagues), making sure that key decision-makers know all about the potential "unintended consequences" of an unwelcome piece of legislation, and explaining how to draft "win-win" laws. To a young and inexperienced staffer (and there are many), facts and figures on demand are a godsend, especially when time is short (as it almost always is). And even better if the lobbyist used to work just down the hall.

But what if Congress began to pay staffers more, hired more of them, and made it possible for them to work better, more family-friendly hours? Surely, they would be more likely stick around longer, becoming savvier customers of information with each passing year. They would be less likely to turn to lobbyists to make sense of the complexities of policy-making and also less likely to turn into lobbyists themselves, thus taking their knowledge of those complexities with them. Higher salaries and better working conditions would also mean Congress would be able to draw on a larger and more diverse talent pool in filling positions.

Additionally, Congress could bolster its independence from lobbyists by increasing the funding for the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office, which turn out reports and investigate a wide range of policy issues. Again, the more information and expertise there is readily available from neutral sources, the less need members of Congress and their staffers will have for relying on private lobbyists.

It is also important to recognize that the advantage that big business enjoys is nothing new. It has existed for as long as there have been lobbyists (though the extent of it has varied over the years), and it will remain as long as businesses can raise far more money for their lobbying groups than their opponents.

Consider an example: If big energy companies want to get together to fight new pollution regulations, it's very easy for a couple of CEOs who have everything at stake to take a few million dollars each from their multi-billion dollar general budget and spend it on lobbying. It's much harder for an environmental group to raise a similar amount of money from the millions of people who might each be only very slightly affected by the fate of the pollution regulations, and each of whom also probably figures somebody else out there will contribute to the environmental cause -- so why should they?

Social scientists call this the "collective action problem," and it helps to explain why roughly half the organizations in Washington represent business, while less than 5 percent could be classified as public-interest groups (regardless of ideology).

One way to counter this seemingly inevitable law of biased representation would be for the government to support a cadre of public-interest lobbyists. These lobbyists would be available to represent any group that represents a sizeable diffuse public interest that is not being adequately represented in a policy debate.

There are a number of ways this might work. Groups could petition an office of public lobbying and get support for their causes based on the number of signatures above a certain threshold. The government could also do periodic issue polling on legislation under consideration, and if it found, say 25 percent or more support for a side that is not being represented, that side would get a public lobbyist. Causes would also have to prove that they are being outspent by more than, say, a 2-to-1 margin. Government could allocate assistance in proportion to both the public support of the cause and the resources being allocated on the other side.

Understandably, Americans are frustrated with the expanded role that lobbyists play in Washington, and they have good reason to be. Lobbyists overwhelmingly represent the narrow interests of the largest and most powerful corporations, and the policy outcomes they help shape often reflect that. But lobbyists also exist to solve a real need for expertise on the Hill. That is the real scandal about lobbying.

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