What Lobbying Isn't

In the other night's Republican debate, Michele Bachmann charged that the reason Rick Perry tried to mandate that girls in Texas get a nefarious "government injection" of Gardasil to prevent infection with HPV, which causes cervical cancer, was that Merck, the company that makes the drug, gave Perry political donations. Perry responded that the company only gave him $5,000, and he was offended at the idea that he could be bought for so little. It turns out that over his whole career Perry has gotten a total of $23,500, but Matt Yglesias makes the relevant observation, which is that the fact that Perry's former chief of staff was the lobbyist for Merck is what made the difference:

I'd say there are two main factors behind Perry's decision. One is that the call is very defensible on the merits, so when the aide-turned-lobbyist shows up with $5,000 and an argument on behalf of his client he actually has a strong argument. The other is that the argument is being made by a former chief of staff! After all, there are lots of perfectly good ideas that Perry rejects either due to small government principles or social conservative principles. It takes a well-connected guy to get Perry to put that kind of thing aside, but the connection, rather than the money is what's doing the work.

Reporters who write about this sort of thing understand that, but they nonetheless often feed into the naive popular understanding of "lobbying," which is that a guy in a fancy suit comes into an elected official's office, opens a briefcase with stacks of cash, and says, "We hope we can count on your support for HR 827, the Puppy Strangling and Child Dream Destroying Act of 2011." The congressman glances over at a photo of his daughter holding a puppy, sighs heavily, and says, "Oh all right." But that's not how it works.

Lobbyists are almost never able to get officials to support things they hate. They're able to get them to choose a particular option from among multiple options for how a law ought to work, all of which the official would have been OK with. Or they're able to get them to insert a provision into a bill on a topic the official is basically indifferent to. Money can help lubricate the access that makes it possible; if a company has given you lots of money, you'll be more likely to take the meeting. But the more high-profile the policy question is, the less money matters. Having every girl in the state vaccinated is a big deal, not some arcane provision of a 1000-page bill no one but the affected industry will notice. So there's no doubt that Rick Perry was convinced that it was a good idea. The fact that the guy making the case to him happened to be a buddy certainly helped, but he wasn't doing it to please the pharmaceutical company.

So it's perfectly legitimate for Perry's opponents to argue that on the merits, vaccinating girls against HPV is a bad idea that he shouldn't have pursued. They can say the episode proves that Perry's hatred of government is insufficient, or that he is disturbingly uninterested in making sure that dirty sluts who have sex get punished for their sins with cancer. But they can't really say he was bought.

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