It's Not Just Who You Know: The Failure of Lobbying Reform
Much attention has been focused lately on the failure of the 2007 lobbying reform bill to stop, or even slow down, the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. Since the bill's passage, thousands of congressional aides have registered as lobbyists, and more than 1,650 have done so within one year of leaving the Hill. This is despite the bill's most touted provision—a one year cooling-off period for “senior” staffers, during which time they are not supposed to lobby.
The desire to stop, or slow down, the revolving door comes from a conviction that lobbyists with former government experience are better able to get their way, and that this somehow undermines our democracy. Evidence shows that at least the former is true. Baumgartner et al. find that successful lobbying is determined, in part, by having previous federal employment.
But why do revolving door lobbyists have this ability to achieve their lobbying ends? The answer most people give is “access.” Lobbyists are able to use their relationships with their former Congressional employers and colleagues to ensure that their voices are heard.
Certainly clients, at least in part, seem to value revolving door lobbyists for their access. Blanes i Vidal et al. find that when a revolving door lobbyist's former employer leaves office, the lobbyist works on fewer contracts, and those contracts are worth less to the firms. My dissertation research finds that when a member of Congress changes her committee assignment, her former employees-turned-lobbyists start lobbying on the issues under the purview of the new committee. Both of these studies show that access plays a role in lobbying by revolving door lobbyists, and that any attempt to stop the revolving door needs to adequately address the issue of access.
The law, for all its faults, aims at stopping the revolving door by reducing the access that former staffers have to their old employers. And the loopholes that the articles and reports focus on also relate to access. The definition of “senior” staffer is based on salary, not title or position, and many revolving door lobbyists acknowledge refusing raises or taking pay cuts in their previous employment in order to avoid the ban. Even those who do fall under the ban are easily able to work around it. In the House, the restriction is merely on lobbying one's former employer. If a staffer handled all of the issues pertaining to a certain committee that the Member was on, she is only banned from lobbying the Member, not the others on the committee. This is despite any close connections she might have built with other committee members. Additionally, the law puts no limits on social interactions or campaign activity. A lobbyist is supposed to refrain from talking about the issues they are lobbying on, but the enforcement is lax, and even if the topic is avoided, the lawmakers still are aware of the issues the lobbyists represent.
But, more critically, even if revolving door lobbyists fully obey the spirit of the law and avoid making any contacts with lawmakers during the cooling-off period, they can still be useful to their colleagues. How? Lobbyists can work behind the scenes, using their expert knowledge of the procedural and political details that impact every stage of the legislative process, to advise clients about the inner workings of Congress.
While being confident that one can get the ear of a lawmaker is useful, knowing when to make that contact, what to ask for, and how to frame “the ask” are all important aspects of being a good lobbyist. Is one asking for an amendment or to kill the bill? Should one be trying to alter the bill on the floor, during the committee mark-up, or before the mark-up is even on the calendar? Does one stress how the member's constituents feel, the way it would impact her district, or emphasize which of her colleagues also support the bill? These questions can be answered by revolving door lobbyists without violating any aspect of the law. As long as they do not pick up the phone or attend the meeting, they can advise their colleagues on exactly what to do.
While prior legislative branch employment is not a prerequisite for procedural or political expertise, it is helpful. I ran a survey of registered lobbyists and found that those who previously worked on the Hill rated themselves as “confident” when asked how confident they were in their political and procedural expertise. Those without prior federal government employment rated themselves only “somewhat confident.”
By not addressing anything other than access, attempts at lobbying reform miss a crucial aspect of what makes revolving door lobbyists valuable: their procedural and political expertise. To effectively stop or slow down the problem of revolving door lobbyists, not only do the loopholes need to be closed, but the laws need to address every advantage a former federal employee brings, not just their access.
Lara Chausow is a Yale graduate student who studies American Politics, with a focus on Congress, lobbying, and interest groups. Prior to entering graduate school, she conducted research and advocacy for government ethics and campaign finance reform at Public Citizen in Washington, DC.