No, Lobbying Is Not Bribery
We recently created a free e-book to help people be more effective when trying to reach out to Congress. The free download teaches people how to have a stronger voice in government through constituent advocacy.
When I finished writing the guide, I had to come up with a clever way to promote it on social media and encourage people to sign up. I thought the following Facebook Post would be a good way to hook people in:
"Sign up for our free guide to learn the strategies that
make lobbyists so influential."
Lobbyists get paid a LOT of money to influence government for a living so I figured people would want to know how they operate and what makes them so influential.
What I thought was a pretty compelling hook ended up being a lightning rod of controversy.
Within minutes, my Facebook notifications started blowing up with comment after comment explaining to me how people think lobbyists get their political influence — BRIBERY!
I normally avoid trying to reason with Facebook commentators, but in this case, letting these comments go unanswered was not an option. Thinking that lobbyists get their influence from bribery is a dangerous misconception for people to have, which I will explain in more detail later in this piece.
When I worked for an advocacy nonprofit in D.C., we hired a lobbying firm to help out with our cause. I joined the lobbyists in dozens of meetings on the Hill and saw firsthand the work they do. The lobbyists were smart professionals who were influential because they spent their time building relationships with staffers and members of Congress. I never once saw them carry in a bag of money or mention a political donation.
Those of us who have worked in government or advocacy for any amount of time know that lobbyists are not professional bribers. Lobbyists do not get paid ridiculous amounts of money because they have mastered the art of bribery. If making political donations bought you political favors, why wouldn’t companies just fire all the lobbyists and donate directly to the elected official’s campaign instead?
If companies are no longer restricted by the amount of money they can give, why would they spend billions of dollars a year on a middle man?
Researchers from Harvard University have confirmed that lobbyists are not professional bribers. After spending a year shadowing, examining and interviewing lobbyists, they were able to boil down what makes lobbyists so influential to two sentences:
“Contrary to public misconception, the daily life of firm lobbyists is not filled with glamorous parties and smoke-filled backroom politicking where lobbyists engage in quid pro quo transactions of money for policy. Rather, these firm lobbyists focus their professional attention on honing the fine art of building relationships, primarily with members of Congress and their staffs, but also with potential clients, coalitions and other individuals and organizations related to their clients and issue areas.”
The Harvard researchers also looked at the role donations play in lobbying and influence, and they came to a very interesting conclusion:
“Lobbyist participants engaged in extensive formality to frame support as gifts between political and legislative allies and friends… the general sense is that providing support in small amounts, at the “right” moments, served to build trusted relationships over time and to offset any inconvenience caused by taking the lawmaker’s time. A transaction or quid pro quo exchange, like borrowing money from a family member, would serve to undermine the relationship and, thus, it was to be avoided at all costs.”
They do not say that money plays no role in influence, but they are saying that political donations do not cause political influence.
Political influence is not that simple. The researchers observed very few instances of quid pro quo transactions or money being exchanged for policy favors. What they found was that lobbyists “avoid at all costs” the idea that they want something in return for donations. Donations are instead seen as a show of support between the lawmaker and the lobbyist because they share common goals.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at The New American Foundation and the author of “The Business Of America Is Lobbying” is an expert in lobbying, influence and money in politics. He recently published a paper for The Brookings Institute about the lobbying industry and how we should fix it.
In his research paper, A Better Way To Fix Lobbying, he came to a similar conclusion:
“Lobbyists are not inherently corrupting, nor does their primary influence stem from some devilish power to automatically compel legislative outcomes through campaign contributions and/or personal connections, as is commonly believed. Rather, their influence comes from their ability to become an essential part of the policy-making process by flooding understaffed, under-experienced and overworked congressional offices with enough information and expertise to help shape their thinking.”
If you aren’t persuaded by the conclusions of one of the top universities and the top lobbying expert in the country, then let’s look at some data.
If you simply follow the money, you can see that the influence of political donations is wildly overrated.
Example 1: The US Chamber of Commerce
It is arguably the most influential group in Washington, D.C. It represents the interests of over 3 million businesses and advocates for pro-business policies. In 2015 and 2016, it spent over $200 million lobbying Congress to implement its pro-business agenda. During that same time, it only donated about $300,000 to candidates running for office. If political contributions equaled political power, those numbers would be flipped.
One of the most influential non-business groups is AARP, a membership organization for Americans over the age of 50. While most people join for the handy discounts, its 38 million dues-paying members fund one of the most influential groups in town.
The political power of AARP does not come from campaign donations. In fact, as an organization, it did not make any in 2016. The only reported donations came from individuals who work for the organization, and those totaled only $71,000. While they did not spend any money on campaign contributions, they spent over $16 million in 2015 and 2016 on lobbying.
(It is important to point out that the total amount includes donations from the organization itself, any associated PACs, and donations above $200 from employees. If an entry-level employee makes a donation above $200 to his favorite candidate, the FEC counts that as a donation from AARP).
Example 3: The Boeing Corporation
Boeing is the world's largest aerospace company and leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners, is one of the most influential individual companies in D.C. It employs over 140,000 people and is one of the largest suppliers to the government, making fighter-bombers, transport planes, the Apache helicopter and, of course, Air Force One.
You would think that with so much influence, it would top the list of
companies that gave to politicians in 2016. Well, that would be wrong. In 2016, Boeing spent about $3 million in political donations, ranking 126th on a list of the top political donors. A third of that $3 million came from people the company employs, and not the company itself. Yes, we agree that $3 million is a large number, but it’s nothing compared to the $30 million that Boeing spent on hiring lobbyists to influence government during that time.
In 2017, Boeing hired 115 people to influence government on its behalf.