Lee Drutman is the co-author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy .
Last week it was reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had spent $72.7 million on lobbying in 2006, setting a new American record, previously held by ... the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: $53.4 million in 2004. It is a remarkable amount of money, and so it's worth asking: How exactly does a group manage to spend so much money on the political process? And should we care?
This little factoid was not major news. Sadly, there is little “new” about business groups spending ridiculous amounts of money to try to influence public policy. When the Center for Responsive Politics totaled up all lobbying expenditures from 1998 to 2004, of the top 100 groups (all of whom spent at least $19 million), 60 were corporations and 32 were business trade groups (like the Chamber of Commerce). That means 92 percent of the most active groups were businesses or business trade groups. The Chamber topped the list at $204 million, followed by Altria at $101 million and General Electric at $94 million.
The Chamber’s record-breaking expenditures are also not news because there is nothing outwardly scandalous about them, in the way that, say, Jack Abramoff’s delightful dealings were outwardly scandalous. I suspect that most of the Chamber's lobbying is decidedly uninteresting and above-board—lots of meetings, mostly in the greater Capitol Hill area, full of long-winded arguments about why proposed or existing regulations are bad for economic growth.
But this dull fact doesn't neatly fit the picture of that “culture of corruption” that the Democrats keep promising to end. One looks in vain for the outlandishly inappropriate gifts and meals and tickets and trips that are said to buy influence. Though I don’t know for sure, I strongly suspect that large organizations like the Chamber of Commerce (or General Electric, or Boeing, or the Edison Electric Institute or any of the other business groups that spend tens of millions a year on professional lobbying) are not basing their lobbying strategy primarily on steak dinners and choice seats at a Wizards game. (If this were all it took, the Chamber would certainly have to spend a lot less).
Which is not to say that there aren’t plenty of such lavish lawmaker-lobbyist goings-on around the greater District of Columbia area, each with its own distinct whiff of impropriety. But the relentless focus on highlighting these goings—on (pick up a copy of The Washington Post or listen to a Democratic speech on the subject) offers a very misleading picture of lobbying.
If only it were that glamorous, the actual lobbyist must think! Lobbying is a shoe-leather business and it involves more than just the luxury box. To be effective, it takes relentless focus on the arduous and complex process by which a bill becomes a law (drafting it, attending hearing after hearing, then the subcommittee vote, the committee vote, the floor vote, the conference committee and so on). And then after all that, the endless attention to the process by which a law becomes an agency rule (public comment after public comment) and then to a never-ending litigation strategy once the rule is in place. And so on and so on, over and over again. Start participating at every level (and shaping public opinion, where necessary) and the lobbying expenditures do start to add up.
Only those with millions to spend can fight full strength at every stage of the process. Or even better, credibly threaten to fight full strength at every stage, in order not to actually have to.
Consider the prescription drug reform the Democrats promised during campaign season. By mid-January, when the bill was ready, Democratic leaders had backtracked. They had left intact the ban on Canadian drug imports, the ban on price caps and the requirement that private insurance plans remain small and numerous (and hence handicapped in their ability to negotiate bulk discounts).
Did pharmaceutical companies make their case with meals and tickets and trips? Or did they use more “appropriate,” though more costly, means, like hiring hordes of former Democratic staffers to make convincing arguments on why all those reforms would, in fact, be counterproductive, and by just generally being annoyingly persistent? They were successful, at least in part, because pharmaceutical lobbyists could promise to fight the Democrats every step of the way—a credible threat, given their resources. The pharmaceutical and health products industry spent $612 million to lobby between 1998 and 2004, more than any other industry. While such reforms might be popular generally, there was no organized group to push Democrats with nearly as many resources.
The fact that the Chamber of Commerce could and did spend $72.7 million on lobbying last year ought to give us far more pause than any of these periodic scandals of improper trips or exploited loopholes that keep popping up in our newspapers. Yes, these scandals are outrageous, and obviously worth noting and exposing. But the real outrage is the broad range of progressive policies that are simply off the agenda because to go against all that money is widely viewed as political suicide. In addition, a broad range of business-friendly policies are on the agenda because all that business money has worked tirelessly to place them there.
Sure, Congress could and should put all the limits it wants on gifts and travel (though by all indications, loopholes abound in all the latest plans and probably always will). Sure, more disclosure about lobbying is great (though not particularly useful, given that citizens don’t really get meaningful choices between candidates who listen to a lot of lobbyists and those who don’t). But it’s also time to look at the fundamental imbalances in the world of lobbying, and at who can afford to spend $72.7 million to influence public policy and who can’t. And why that matters far, far more than a single golf outing to Scotland.