Lobbying and Policy Change

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The current issue of Miller-McCune features a great Melinda Burns writeup of the moderately counterintuitive findings in the award-winning recent book Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why by Frank R. Baumgartner, Jeffrey M. Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, and Beth L. Leech. I’m not 100 percent sure what the best way to characterize their findings is. I’ve heard it glossed as showing that lobbying “doesn’t matter” or doesn’t matter “as much as you think” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I’d say it’s something more like “the policy agenda in Washington is dominated by issues that have substantial lobbies on both sides, and relative strength of the lobbies doesn’t determine the outcome; also the outcome is usually that nothing changes.”

Here’s how Burns puts it:

The real outcome of most lobbying — in fact, its greatest success — is the achievement of nothing, the maintenance of the status quo. “Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens,” says Frank Baumgartner, one author of the book and a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs. We see a pattern of no change, no change and no change — and then some huge reform.”

But those large reforms — such as health care for 32 million uninsured Americans under President Barack Obama, the scheduled phase-out of the estate tax under President George W. Bush, and the normalization of trade relations with China under President Bill Clinton — are far more often linked to a change in who inhabits the White House than to campaign contributions or K Street hires.

On the one hand, this punctures some insidery illusions about change happening as a result of an awesome duel between skilled lobbyists and advocates with the better policy change ninja winning the day. At the same time, I think he does help explain the ways in which interest group strength do shape policy outcomes in decisive ways. It’s not possible to reform the health insurance system without arousing some powerful opposition. Consequently, to get it done it had to be done in such a way as to induce some other powerful lobbies—in the case of the Affordable Care Act, mostly pharmaceutical firms and labor unions—to line up in favor of change. But once you have strong lobbies on both sides, it’s not like you win by having more or better lobbyists: “across the board for the 98 issues, the side with more lobbyists, more PAC donations, bigger organizational budgets and more members won only half the time.”

There’s a lot you could say about this, but the main upshot is that reforms aimed at curbing the power of lobbyists or what have you seem to be somewhat barking up the wrong tree. More important than disempowering the most powerful actors is to find ways to try to empower the powerless. If you don’t have any lobbyists, donations, members, or organization at all then you’ve got a real problem. And the other is simply that the system’s overwhelming feature is its massive tilt toward the status quo—something I don’t like, that others do like, and that it might be possible to change.