Monday, March 19, 2012

Lobbying as a Legislative Subsidy

Ezra Klein has written a great piece for the New York Review of Books; diagnosing some of the ways money does, and does not, corrode our political system.

In many of the conversations I've privately had with liberal friends and acquaintances, money and politics is often reduced to a kind of arithmetic: Money + Politics = Corruption. I do not completely disagree with the assertion, but I certainly think there is more to it that that (as I've touched on here). Why I like Klein's piece so much is that he really plumbs the depths of causation mechanisms between well financed lobby interests and favorable legislative results. The problem with the "lobbying as a form of bribery" hypothesis is that it doesn't really stand up to scrutiny in the real world:
[...] lobbying, at least in its bluntest form, doesn’t seem to work. For many Americans, lobbying is a form of bribery. A rich lobbyist goes to a corrupt congressman, money changes hands, and the lobbyist gets his vote while the congressman gets money for his campaign. Many researchers have tried to find systematic evidence of vote buying. Very few have succeeded. Lessig quotes research by Dan Clawson, Mark Weller, and Alan Neustadtl, which concluded, “Many critics of big money campaign finance seem to assume that a corporate donor summons a senator and says, ‘Senator, I want you to vote against raising the minimum wage. Here’s $5,000 to do so.’ This view, in its crude form, is simply wrong.”
Klein explains that lobbying, instead, is more a form a legislative subsidy:
In addition to providing campaign contributions and employment prospects to outgoing elected officials and their staffs, [lobbyists] provides legislative expertise. Political scientists call this “the legislative subsidy” model of lobbying, and it poses a serious challenge to the view that lobbyists are little more than parasites.

The theory was first proposed by Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff in a 2006 paper entitled “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” The paper was an attempt to solve a problem that, at first glance, should not have needed to be solved, because it should not have existed in the first place: Why is the behavior of lobbyists so hard to predict?

For instance: you would think that lobbyists would concentrate their financial power and well-honed connections on the politicians they need to persuade. But they don’t. They concentrate it on the politicians who are already most convinced of their positions.
In a lot of ways, the money spent on lobbying is not so much a direct attempt at vote buying or bribery, as it is an indirect attempt at agenda setting and coalition building. Certainly there's going to be "ol' boys club" type glad handing, which favors those who already are familiar and participants in networks of privilege. But that does not necessarily mean that levels of financing is the only factor.

One last thing that I think is very important, and is not mentioned nearly enough, is the fact that the "expenditure effect"; that is, the amount of influence lobbyist spending has on an issue, recedes in relation to the issue's prominence. Klein explains:
Take any issue that you’ve actually heard a lot about. The headline clashes. The big-ticket bills. They’ve all got money on both sides. They’ve all got platoons of lobbyists swarming onto Capitol Hill. They’ve all got activists and interest groups and even ordinary Americans pestering their congressmen. And they all go the same way: the Democrats vote with the Democrats, and the Republicans vote with the Republicans.

That’s true even when the big money lines up in favor of another outcome. In 2011, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO joined together to call for a major reinvestment in American infrastructure. None passed. In 2010, most of the health care industry was either supportive or neutral on the Affordable Care Act, and if any one of them could have swung the votes of even a few Republican senators or congressmen, the desperate Democrats would have let them write almost anything they wanted into the bill. But not one Republican budged. In 2009, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the stimulus bill as a necessary boost to the economy. Not one House Republican voted for it. Almost every major business group has been calling for tax reform and a big, Simpson-Bowles-like deficit reduction package for years now. But Congress remains deadlocked.
I do not want to imply that I do not think money is an issue in American politics; it is. But I think we need to look at the effect money has on our political system in less ideological way, and in a more scientific way.

Bonus: Ta-Nehisi Coates' own thoughts on Klein's work.

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