How the Lobbyists Win in Washington

President Obama announcing his nomination of the telecom industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, May 2013
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Obama announcing his nomination of the telecom industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, May 2013

On President Obama’s first day in office in 2009, he issued an executive order to close “the revolving door” between government and the private sector by restricting the hiring of any registered lobbyists for positions in his administration. But Obama himself eventually hired at least seventy lobbyists, many of whom then returned to lobbying after a stint in his administration. So much for Obama’s campaign pledge that he would “tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.” The executive order has since been dropped, and the number of business lobbyists in Washington has continued rising rapidly.

Taking jabs at the profession remains a popular sport, even among Republicans. Donald Trump claimed at one of the Republican debates this fall that he would not talk to lobbyists once elected. Jeb Bush said that he would not let any more into Washington’s halls of power. The question remains: How much influence on Washington’s agenda do business lobbyists have?

A book titled The Business of America Is Lobbying by a highly regarded Washington watchdog, Lee Drutman, is therefore welcome, especially during a new presidential season. It takes some wading through Drutman’s disorganized prose and his sometimes ambivalent feelings about lobbying to find his main messages. But there are two crucial points that are disturbing. The first is that business spends $34 on lobbying for every dollar spent by likely opponents such as labor unions and other interest groups.

The second point is, I think, Drutman’s most important. It may once have been adequate for lobbyists to provide business clients access to the right people. Today, however, they also must develop expertise on major political issues, so that they can provide policymakers with research, draft legislation, and pass on up-to-the-minute information. Lobbyists, not staffers, concludes Drutman, are now the major source of information for Congress and the executive branch on major legislative issues. In one survey, two thirds of congressional staffers said they depend on lobbyists for the information they need to make legislative decisions and pass bills. Thus lobbying grows because Congress, and often the executive branch, needs lobbyists.

To sum up Drutman’s main theme, there is a large imbalance of both lobbying money and expertise that enables lobbyists to influence much of the Washington agenda today. Drutman believes this influence must be trimmed, and he proposes a number of reforms to address the asymmetry of money and expertise—including a new public lobby—that I believe may be effective and will discuss below. But none of Drutman’s proposals has been discussed in the presidential campaigns thus far. The candidates are more content…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.