The Once and Future Lobby:

Jeffrey Birnbaum takes a look at the growth of lobbying in Washington, D.C.

Every 10 years or so, reformers have sought to rein in these paid persuaders, but the influence of lobbyists has only expanded. Today, twice as many registered lobbyists -- about 30,000 -- ply their trade than did so just six years ago. And overall spending on federal lobbying has nearly doubled, to $200.2 million per month in 2005 from $116.3 million per month in 1999. By all accounts, business is booming.

Don't expect this trend to abate anytime soon. As government grows, and becomes more complex, the demand for lobbyists only increases. Even companies that once shunned active lobbying have given in and acquired their own hired guns, even if only to defend their interests from predation by others.

Government has become so complex that only experts -- say, ex-congressional staff members turned lobbyists -- can decipher and navigate it. Anyone who wants to penetrate the system has little choice but to hire lobbying firms. And for good reason: Washington is no longer the insular and distant regulator it was before World War II. It insinuates itself into almost every facet of Americans' lives, from school assessments to corporate accounting to homeland security.

In turn, lawmakers have come to rely on lobbyists to provide much of their campaign cash, most of the information and voter support that propel their legislative initiatives, and many of the off-hour perks that keep them well-traveled and well-fed. These benefits are so valuable that Congress -- even faced with an ornery, anti-Washington electorate -- is poised to pass, as soon as this week, a sliver of an already weak lobby-reform bill, and discard anything that would limit its contact with lobbyists. Almost no one on Capital Hill wants to discourage the sugar daddies on K.

This is how Washington works today, and so long as the federal government is a growth industry it is not going to change. The larger the government, the greater the demand lobbyist representation.

"For the more than 30 years I've been around here, people have always complained about lobbyists," said Wright H. Andrews Jr. of the lobbying firm Butera & Andrews. "But they don't understand. My own mother didn't understand. She cried when I told her what I was going to do." But he explained, "After people have been here a while, they find out that the lobbying community is an essential part of the legislative process."

is this an example of the tragedy of the commons, or is there another word for it? Get your sheep on the field before the other sheep take all of the grass...?
9.11.2006 10:45am
another anonVCfan (mail):
Slightly different. The government can't force the grass to grow, but it can always raise taxes.
9.11.2006 10:59am
AppSocRes (mail):
When the government gets so complex that ordinary citizens cannot deal with it, it's time to get a new government.
9.11.2006 11:07am
Dantheman (mail):
Has government become twice as large in the last 6 years? If not, perhaps another explanation for why lobbyists have doubled in that time may be useful.

For example, the increased influence, even to the extent of writing legislation for the Republican Congress, may lead to potential consumers of lobbying services concluding that the services are more valuable now than in the past, and if others, less beholden to lobbyists become the majority, the number of lobbyists may wane.

Further, the partisan influencing of lobbying hiring decisions through the K Street Project may have a role in this, as to keep on the good side of the Republican Congress, hiring additional Republicans may be necessary, whether they are actually needed or not.
9.11.2006 11:27am
Isaac (www):

Has government become twice as large in the last 6 years? If not, perhaps another explanation for why lobbyists have doubled in that time may be useful.

I would expect the influence of lobbyists to be a function of both the size of the government and of its complexity. I would also expect that the government's complexity goes up as its size goes up. Consequently, I would not be surprised if the influence of lobbyists goes up nonlinearly with the size of the government.

That's not to say that there are no other contributing factors, just that a lack of linearity between government size and lobbyist influence doesn't by itself prove that there must be.
9.11.2006 12:02pm
trotsky (mail):
I was struck by the author's twin contentions that

a) It has always been thus, and always will be.


b) The number of lobbyists has doubled since the GOP takeover in 2000.

It seems to me that there's nothing wrong with a company having a represenative in Washington to keep an eye on its interests. But there's something very wrong with the flood of congressional earmarking and tax loopholing (remember the energy bill?) where the corruption is palpable. If hiring a lobbyist didn't return such good dividends, nobody would do it.
9.11.2006 12:26pm
jrl1234 (mail):
Strange that the Washington Post's lobbying correspondent doesn't know the difference b/t capitol and capital.
9.11.2006 12:41pm
liberty (mail) (www):
It isn't just the overall size of government, nor its complixity, nor even the amount of its loopholes and earmarks (though thats closer to the problem).

It is the extent which government can pass laws (for and against regulation on economic and other grounds and various other laws that help specific businesses or groups), increase subsidies and reduce taxes, create new loopholes, and otherwise favor some firms or individuals over others.

Back when we considered our constitution binding, we did not pass legislation in order to improve the economic welfare of a small group - be they certain unionized labor or certain small businesses (though early anti-trust laws began to eat away at that). There is surely a constitutional remedy - though I am not sure it would be easy to enact at this point.
9.11.2006 1:01pm
another anonVCfan (mail):
That would explain the growth of lobbying since the new deal, but it doesn't do much to explain the boom over the last 6 years. While lobbying is profitable for the reasons you provided, my guess is that it's even MORE profitable when both the Congress and the White House are controlled by the same party.
9.11.2006 1:06pm
Has lobbying actually grown so dramatically, or has the definition and/or the rigor with which it is tracked changed?

Also, "When the government gets so complex that ordinary citizens cannot deal with it, it's time to get a new government" is really demagoguery. Why should we expect that the things that governement does is readily understood and managed by those with neither subject matter expertise nor significant time to devote to dealing with an issue. The growth of lobbying may be the sign of something bad, but complexity is not it.
9.11.2006 1:28pm
Robert Racansky:
Rather than concentrate our elected representatives in one location (Washington DC), they should be requried to conduct business from the districts they represent. There is no reason they cannot cast their votes from their home states.

This would have several desirable benefits. In regards to this post, the costs of lobbying would increase. Rather than one lobbyist being able to schmooze with 535 congress-critters at once (theoretically), interest groups would be required spend more money for 10s or 100s of more lobbyists.
9.11.2006 2:03pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
It's impossible for any industry of any size to function without representation focused on DC. Just for starters -- you want to read the Federal Register cover to cover each day to see what rules, if any, may have been proposed for your business?

Moving the legislators back home (vote and meet by video conference) would be a good idea for another reason. Washington is very much a "company town," with the company being the government. It's the same as most other towns -- one big paper, the Post, one little one, the Times, and a handful of local TV stations. Any proposal to reduce government, or DC, will be met with the reaction given to anti-lumbering proposals in a sawmill town.

I recall when they passed legislation allowing govt headquarters shops to be moved out of the District (mostly into the VA suburbs, tho Bobby Byrd made sure some went to W. Va.). The Post was outraged. One editoral piece referred to it as theft from DC, something like that.
9.11.2006 3:14pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
To give a concrete example of the complexity -- let's take wildlife statutes. Hardly a big federal issue, compared to many other subjects.

After NINE YEARS fulltime legal work on it, I think I could have called myself expert on the Lacey Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, some aspects of the wildlife refuge acts, and sections 4, 7 and 9 of the Endangered Species Act. Of the remaining sections of the ESA I knew little. Of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, CITES, and some other statutes I knew nothing. That's after nine years fulltime work.

We had six attorneys there to handle nothing but federal wildlife issues. One had a fulltime job on wildlife issues in Alaska. Another did ESA work, handled CITES, and some other issues. Another did experimental populations (where wildlife is re-introduced into an area), and habitat plans. But it took half a dozen attorneys just to keep their eye on federal wildlife regulations, and none of us knew the entire field.
9.11.2006 3:46pm
bob montgomery:
That would explain the growth of lobbying since the new deal, but it doesn't do much to explain the boom over the last 6 years.

Without context, that statistic is almost meaningless. What was the growth over the previous 6 years? The previous 12? 24?
9.11.2006 3:52pm
Riskable (mail) (www):
I'm not convinced that lobbyists working on behalf of any given industry or commercial entity are good for the nation. By definition these folks are working to change the law to benefit a very small group (albeit with lots of money). There is simply no way that small, non-commercial interest groups can compete with that.

Perhaps the problem isn't with lobbyists or the special interest groups that fund them. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that the amount of influence a lobbyist has is directly linked to the amount of money they can deposit into the accounts of politicians.

I've thought about it considerably and I think that this problem can be fixed with two simple changes:

* Impose a two-term limit for all politicians.
* Limit campaign contributions to citizens (i.e. only people with an SSN can donate) with a cap on yearly contributions.

I'd also add a few smaller restrictions on top of those...

* Every time a Senator or Representative votes on legislation, their constituents must be notified of how they voted along with the full text of the legislation.
* After any given bill is introduced in Congress, all citizens must be sent the full text of the bill along with transcripts of any debate that occurred. All voting on said bill would have to take place at least two weeks after being introduced unless it is classified as emergency legislation. (The idea here is to make sure that there is ample time for public debate)
* Bills should not be allowed to be modified after they have been voted on. Period. No closed-room compromises. No earmarks, no line-item vetoes, no changes of terms, fines, etc. The two houses should be forced to craft legislation that they believe will be deemed acceptable by their counterparts.
* Partisan legislation should be discouraged. To this end I propose that any given bill must be sponsored by at least one other party member in order for it to come up for a vote.

"I have a license to kill -9"
9.12.2006 12:10pm