Friday, February 21, 2014

The Changing Picture of Washington "Influence"

A recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics (AKA “Opensecrets”) and related article in the Washington Post show a number of trends that all add up to a decline in the number of lobbyists, and amount of direct lobbying going on in Washington.

Since 2008 there has been a decline in the number of lobbyists registered to formally lobby members of Congress, and a decline in the amount of money spent on lobbying by these folks. All the data below are from the Center from Responsive Politics and their Lobbying data, which come from lobbying disclosure reports filed with the federal government.

Opensecrets reports that the number of lobbyists has declined in recent years, as shown in the following graph.

However, I wondered whether this change was real in relative terms, year to year.  So I graphed the percent change in the number of registered lobbyists across this time period.


Bars that go above the zero line represent years that had more registered lobbyists than the previous year; whereas bars that go below the zero-line represent yeas that had fewer lobbyists than the year before.  The trend shows that in recent years, there have indeed been fewer lobbyists than the year before.

Opensecrets also shows that the amount of money spent by these lobbyists across time has generally increased, but that in recent years it has been in decline.  I used their data, but adjusted the dollars for inflation and report all amounts in comparable 2013 dollars. 


Again, I plot the percent change from year to year:

In recent years, at least since 2011, there has been a decline in the amount of money spent on lobbying, although the trend is not as monotonic as the Opensecrets’ presentation suggests.

What explains these trends? 

One possibility is that lobbying firms have just gotten more efficient.  They can deliver the same amount of “punch” (i.e., influence) with fewer lobbyists and less expenditures on direct lobbying.  This may be possible; however since the percent change over time is not constant, even for the last few years, it doesn’t seem to be the case that K-street is just more efficient.  It seems more likely that they are supplementing their (reported) lobbying elsewhere.

A second possibility is the so-called “shadow lobby.” Some researchers have suggested that there is a whole lot of traditional lobbying going on that doesn’t get reported. This “shadow lobby” is massive, by some accounts, and skirts the requirements for disclosure—so it’s all legal.  Of course, there is a lot we don’t know about this potential shadow population, so it’s difficult to know how important it is, what it’s doing, or how large it is. 

A third possibility is that organizations are using other forms of lobbying that are not transparently lobbying.  For example, Tom Hamburger reports in the Washington Post that some companies invest research dollars in academic, or pseudo-academic, research that supports their claims.  If a company pays a researcher, foundation, non-profit, or institute to engage in research that supports the company’s claims, is that lobbying?  The journalist describes this approach as “soft lobbying,” and claims that companies may be beginning to favor this approach over the more traditional direct lobbying—hence the decline in professional lobbyists.

A fourth possibility is that firms are supplementing their traditional “insider” lobbying (e.g., one-on-one meetings with legislators) with other forms of lobbyist that may be less expensive (hence the decline in money spent), or less transparent. It’s possible that firms are eschewing some insider lobbying for “outsider” lobbying—where organizations help the public to express their opinions (or get the public riled up about something) and congress is forced to take notice because so many people are asking for the same thing.  Think Civil Right Movement in the 1960s.  Traditionally, this type of lobbying is thought to be very expensive, and quite risky.  But it could be the case that the advent of social media, and its widespread use in recent years, has made outsider lobbying less expensive, and more useful than it used to be.

The Congressional Management Foundation reports that congressional offices receive more mail than ever, and much of the communication between congressional offices and constituents these days is electronic. Moreover, congressional staffers report that social media is a good way to get to know constituents preferences, from Facebook (64%) or Twitter (42%).  So most people who contact Congress, whether professional advocates or citizens, do so at the request of an organization, and do so by electronic means.

Therefore, it is possible that the number of professional lobbyists is declining, in part, because groups, corporations, and other interests are becoming expert at getting “regular citizens” to do their lobbying for them. As the cost of such communication goes down, the prevalence of it goes up.  Perhaps some firms are calculating that “outsider” lobbying via social media is low cost and effective, so they are not only integrating it into their menu of lobbying tactics, but starting to favor it over the traditional, and more expensive, insider tactics. [Hat tip here to my undergraduate student Megan Adamczewski, who makes this argument in her honors thesis. She inspired me to write this post.]
None of these options is mutually exclusive. It could be the case that all of these effects are occurring simultaneously, and it is likely that they are. It will be the job of scholarship to determine the relative presence and effectiveness of these strategies and to help us explain how well they work at achieving groups’ policy objectives. 

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't it also be that lobbying became less effective, at least for some types of groups? Then groups are rationally responding the reduced effectiveness of lobbying by reducing the amount of lobbying they purchase.