What Is the Relationship Between Lobbyists and Congress? (with Timothy LaPira)

By Kevin R. Kosar May 2, 2022

The topic of this episode is, “What is the relationship between lobbyists and Congress?”

My guest is Timothy LaPira. He is a professor of political science at James Madison University and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Effective Lawmaking at the University of Virginia. Tim, I should add, is the lead editor of our volume Congress Overwhelmed: The Decline of Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform (University of Chicago Press, 2020). But even more relevant to the subject of this podcast episode is that Professor LaPira coauthored the book Revolving Door Lobbying: Public Service, Private Influence, and the Unequal Representation of Interests. This makes him an especially apt person to answer the question for us, “What is the relationship between lobbyists and Congress?”

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution, and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be. And that is why we are here: to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation.

I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.

Tim, welcome to the podcast.

Timothy LaPira:

Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

Kevin Kosar:

Let’s start very simply, with the definition of a lobbyist. Now, under the First Amendment, anyone can petition the government for a redress of grievances, as the Constitution says. So plenty of people do talk to Congress, and the executive branch and judiciary, for that matter. In fact, in my job at a think tank, I am often asked to comment on bills or testify before Congress by congressional staff or even legislators who approach me. But I’m not a lobbyist. So what makes a lobbyist a lobbyist?

Timothy LaPira:

This is a great question. It’s one that’s often misunderstood. There’s many definitions of what a lobbyist is, but I tend to think of—there’s two ways to think about this. First, the more comprehensive, academic version of thinking about a lobbyist. It could go by the name of policy advocate, government relations professional, policy strategist, or something along those lines. These are people who make money to represent other people’s interests. Those interests are typically going to be collected in organizations, but it’s not just representing those interests in speaking. It’s representing those interests in the policymaking process. There has to be a connection between the private sector and the government. So that’s a very broad definition.

There is, further, a statutory definition, primarily through the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which has been updated a number of times. In that law, there’s a three-test definition of what a lobbyist is. First, they have to earn money. There’s a minimum amount of money that’s frankly not all that much given the size of the lobbying industry. It’s about $5,000 a month. Second, they have to contact more than one government official. The purpose of this in the law, of course, is not to simply capture everyone, as you suggested. They might want to call up their member of Congress and say, “Vote for the bill,” or “Vote against a nominee,” or what have you. The third point of the definition is most critical and frankly controversial: the lobbyist must spend more than 20 percent of her time on lobbying services in a given three-month reporting period. Now, Senator Levin, when he originally wrote this law—the intent here was that he was hearing from a lot of CEOs from major corporations who said [that] frequently CEOs are picking up the phone and calling senators. It’s a necessary part of their job, but they don’t consider themselves lobbyists. And they’re not, in many respects. So the idea was to try to capture, who are the day-to-day, routine, professional lobbyists? And this 20 percent definition was sort of picked out of thin air. If we think about it, one full day in a five-day week is 20 percent of your time. This was intended to not capture everybody in a given organization. The problem with that, as we’ll see, is that a lobbyist could define the fact that they’re spending 19 percent of their time on lobbying services and therefore not be a lobbyist, which is, frankly, pretty disingenuous.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, we have this category called lobbyists, but why do we have lobbyists? And are they helpful to Congress in any way, or are they just the bane of the legislative process?

Timothy LaPira:

That’s a good question. I often pose this to my students to think about it this way. Are lobbyists good or bad for democracy? The answer is yes. It partly depends on what your perspective is. I don’t like lobbyists who are taking on positions that I disagree with or oppose. I do like advocates who are speaking on my behalf and representing my own interests.

But the real answer to your question here is that every person has a set of political interests by nature. We all have jobs, pay taxes, use roads, are protected with the common defense, and whatnot. We all have an idiosyncratic set of interests. And what lobbyists are doing—I would say we all have interests that deserve a voice. That’s the First Amendment part. And what lobbyists are doing is acting on our behalf to be our voice because we’re busy with our day jobs, and we’re busy raising kids and doing the shopping. We don’t have time every day to walk up to Capitol Hill and communicate what our interests are.

So lobbyists act as our agents and as our representatives, much like a lawyer might act on our behalf in court. Lobbyists have highly specialized expertise as well. These are typically not just random people off the street who people would be willing to pay to represent their interests. They have technical policy knowledge. They have experience in and around decision-making venues like Congress or the White House. And they also have really dense professional networks, typically in and around the government, where they can pick up the phone and call somebody, and they’ll call them back, or they know who to call with a particular question or who to communicate an interest to. So, in that sense, they’re serving citizens as our representatives and our voice, and they’re able to speak much better than we are, even on behalf of our own interests, because they know the backgrounds and they know who to talk to.

On Congress’s side, or more generally in the government, including the executive, they’re also useful because of their expertise. Members of Congress, in particular—the universe of problems that Congress could be asked to resolve is everything. Meaning that any given member of Congress can’t possibly highly specialize the way that a lobbyist might. That means members of Congress are human, and they have some blind spots. They have some spaces where they don’t know the ins and outs of a given problem or a solution or a proposed law. So it’s useful to rely on experts, and those experts are often lobbyists—as well as think tank scholars and other folks in industry or in a social organization, what have you. So they are providing a good service to government.

Now, that’s not to say that they’re providing that service for free or without any prejudice. They are representing a particular perspective and a highly specialized interest in a fight that might be— All policy conflicts are, after all, conflicts. They are disagreements among several people or groups of people who see differently. So they’re going to represent their own perspective. What that means is oftentimes there are some perspectives that are better represented than others. So when it comes to “Are lobbyists good or bad for democracy?” they’re good because they do provide that service, but they’re not always good because they’re not always representing interests equally.

Kevin Kosar:

That’s excellent, excellent. Thank you.

Now, let’s talk about money. That word came up a short time ago. One of the common claims about lobbyists is that they buy legislators’ votes. They say, “Hey, take this position, and we’ll give a whole bunch of money to your campaign.” Do legislators get bought? Is that a typical thing that happens in Washington, DC, or are lobbyists mostly giving money to legislators who already have positions that coincide or are the same as what the lobbyists want?

Timothy LaPira:

Yeah, this is a great question. It’s also I think largely [mis]understood, in particular how we discuss the role of lobbyists and organized interests in the media, and frankly, the very politicians we’re talking about as well. Lobbyists don’t walk around the Capitol with bags of cash to hand out. That’s not how it works, both literally or figuratively. Lobbyists are often going to be making campaign donations themselves and working with campaign strategists. They’ll be offering advice to their clients and those who they represent about who might be best to give money to. The number one category of legislator or politician, by far, and it’s not even close, it is to give money to people you already agree with. Senators, on average, are raising tens of millions of dollars for reelection. They’re not going to remember one five thousand dollar check. Five thousand dollars might be a lot of money to you and me, but in the collective, it’s going to get drowned out. If you think about how to give money strategically, you’re going to give it to those who you agree with and who are most likely to get reelected, and on top of that, who are most likely to be sitting on the committees in Congress that are going to be most closely regulating your interests. The idea is if you have your friends there, that’s a better starting position in a policy conflict than to try to play catch-up and try to explain your way out of a paper bag in order to get members of Congress to ostensibly change their mind on issues—which is exceedingly rare and difficult to do.

That’s not to say that members of Congress and senators never changed their mind after meeting with a lobbyist. As I said before, lawmakers don’t know everything. They can’t be expected to know everything. And they’re often going to be seeking out good expert and highly-specialized information from lobbyists, among others. Sometimes what they hear they’re going to agree with, and they’ll change their mind. It’s going to be rare, I would say, when members of Congress are in those positions, to consider what the donors want first. When I’ve worked for members of Congress in the past, and we’ve had to respond to thorny or potentially risky policy questions, we go through a whole list of potential stakeholders or people who might have an interest in this policy we’re making—starting with constituents and voters, and potential voters, as well as fellow partisans, party leaders, and major employers in my state or my district. If thinking through a problem while thinking through those stakeholders doesn’t lead to a good answer, then I might be open to persuasion from a lobbyist. And not just a lobbyist, a lobbyist who has given me money. So, it’s not that it never happens, but it’s typically something that’s relatively lower on the totem pole. Lobbyists and special interests on the outside are not typically giving money in order to anticipate changing somebody’s mind in the future. It’s much better to bet on somebody you already agree with, to make sure that they’re in the right position to make decisions that are more likely than not going to satisfy you and your interests.

Kevin Kosar:

That brings to mind something that appears in your book on revolving door lobbying: this idea of lobbying being not just an offensive maneuver that an organized interest might pursue, but rather a defensive one, a form of insurance to prevent things from happening that you don’t want to happen. Something that might be damaging to the industry or interest that you represent. In fact, I’ve read stories of lobbying firms getting involved in the primary process where candidates are trying to vie for the chance just to run for office. The lobbyist will get involved and try to back the person that they think has the attitudes and the views that best suit their clients. Right?

Timothy LaPira:

Absolutely. Right. In our book on revolving door lobbying, we try to imagine or rethink exactly what is this financial motivation to hire certain kinds of lobbyists. A typical story that has been dominant in the scholarly discussions in the past thirty or forty years is that organizations, particularly corporations that have plenty of cash to go around, will be hiring lobbyists as an investment. They’re looking to invest in the policy process with the hopes that that investment will return something in the process. That could be a tax break; it could be reducing cost of regulation; it could be a grant, or even a program in which the federal government is a customer of this corporation. So there’s any number of ways that private organizations are going to be extracting largesse out of government.

But the problem with that is that when we observe these things happening, tax breaks for a corporation or new trade rules for a certain product, we only look at the wins. We’re not looking at the losses. More often than not, it is going to take ten, twenty years for a given law to become an idea before it becomes a law—if it ever does. What didn’t make sense to us is why nowadays it’s upwards of four billion dollars a year being spent on the lobbying industry. (Frankly, it’s probably twice or three times that amount, but that’s another conversation.) But why invest all this money in this process that’s turning up not much of anything?

The analogy that we use in our book is that lobbyists themselves are almost like political insurance. I purchase every month a homeowner’s insurance in case a tornado comes and hits my house. We’ve lived in this house for twelve years. We’ve never seen a tornado. It was still money well spent, because what if the earthquake happened, or what if the flood happened? So, we tried to think about this as, what is the motivation of hiring these expensive lobbyists whose track record is not necessarily great? Because, after all, you’re going to have a conflict, you’re going to have lobbyists on one side and lobbyists on the other. Even if somebody wins, the other half loses. If we think about lobbying instead as political insurance, then we’re able to think about, what exactly are these risks that are being covered when you buy this insurance?

Two main ones that we came up with: one is political uncertainty. After the past few years in American politics, we can certainly see why political uncertainty is something very important. And especially coming from an organizational or corporate perspective where you have to draft a budget, come up with a plan, and hire employees, what CEOs and association leaders want most is some certainty, some way of being able to see into the future—particularly when it comes to, what is the policy landscape going to be for my industry or my interest? They want to have some sense of what’s going on. Lobbyists who’ve worked inside the government are going to be able to offer better insight into what’s going on, even if they’re not in the room where the decision is being made. Why? Because they used to be in that room. They understand what the cost and benefit analyses are that party leaders and members of Congress and presidents are juggling with all these policy issues and policy conflicts that they come up with. So that’s the first thing that they’re buying: some insight into what might we be able to expect to happen. I’d rather get hit by a bad policy and know about it ahead of time. If I can’t stop it, I’d at least like to know about it ahead of time, so I can plan.

The second major risk is, I don’t know if you know this, Kevin, but policy is confusing. If you’ve ever tried to read a statute or read a law—you need expertise. There are a lot of landmines and unintended consequences and things that can’t be anticipated, even when you’re pushing for a policy that you want. So the second risk here is policy ambiguity. What it takes is some technical know-how, being able to speak the language of a particular policy domain—now-President Biden once suggested that he never “spoke healthcare.” Policy can be technical, so you might be hiring to cover that real risk of being caught blindsided in the minutia, jargon, and language of the policy process. All organizations have different risks they’re going to be trying to cover, and whatever they come up with, the roster of lobbyists they come up with, we might think of as a tailored insurance plan for what it is that they are hoping to accomplish.

Kevin Kosar:

I mentioned your book with Herschel Thomas, which focuses on revolving door lobbying, and which I highly recommend to listeners of this podcast. Revolving door lobbying, which I didn’t explain previously, at least not clearly, involves individuals working in Congress as staffers, and then becoming lobbyists, and then sometimes going back to working for Congress. This is the revolving door. Now, how widespread is that phenomenon? And if I may roll in an additional question with that, why do so many legislators and former Hill staffers become lobbyists?

Timothy LaPira:

Easy—money. It pays better. Not just better marginally. A typical staffer on the Hill might be able to expect an earning between three and six times what they earn on the Hill. Members of Congress—last week, we saw former Representative Filemon Vela getting a job at a major law firm, lobbying firm in Washington. Now that he’s a partner at this major firm, he’s going from earning a healthy sum compared to the most people—a member of Congress is going to earn about $175,000 a year—but that’s going to be a drop in the bucket of what he’s going to be able to earn as a partner at this major law firm.

So part of it is this motivation of earning more money, but that’s not everything. What motivates people to go into Congress, whether it’s a politician or a staffer, is a public service motivation. We want to do good. We want to contribute to the common good. We want to be in the halls of power and try to contribute in any way we can to making this world a little bit better of a place than when we left it. That’s a strong motivation. And many of us would be willing to give up a little bit of money in order to have that position. But then you come up against the stark reality after having done that for a few years: you can’t afford to live in Washington, DC anymore. It’s difficult to maintain that for a long period of time.

So what we’re typically seeing these days, and Kevin, this even comes from the work that we did together when we surveyed some current staffers, which is largely motivated by this revolving door lobbyist question, is that most staffers in Congress aren’t going to stay two full congresses. They’re going to stay about two and a half to three years, and they’re often going to be leaving before they’re the ripe old age of thirty. And why are they doing that? It’s because that’s typically when they’re going to be moving on to needing more resources to buy a house, raise a family, and what have you. But the real question is, what is driving—why is the interest group side of this equation so much more lucrative? It would be understandable if it was slightly a little bit more, because it’s the private sector, after all, and they’re not subject to things like government shutdowns and blank budgets and whatnot.

But really what is driving the monumental change by orders of magnitude in pay is the fact that Congress, over the past thirty years, has disinvested so much in its own internal policy expertise that expertise has become so much more valuable outside of Congress. If Congress is not willing to pay for the best and the brightest, and not only pay them, to retain them in this labor market that is going to include the corporate side that has money to burn, then they’re simply—they have not been able to keep up. But most of these people have developed these professional backgrounds and expertise and professional networks that I already discussed. And that’s valuable on K Street. It’s valuable to a lot of organizations. This way, a given professional can still do much of the same work, working in policy and trying to contribute to making our economy and our society better, but doing it with a better paycheck and frankly perhaps a little bit better of a working atmosphere. They’re not subject to getting yelled at all the time, with constituents complaining, not to mention the Republicans and the Democrats that are fighting all the time. In a lobbying firm or at an organization, the work pace is a little bit more reasonable and, in many ways, more fulfilling because you have a much more narrow task list to achieve. It can often be much more rewarding.

So I think with all these things combined, with all these changes in our politics—it has become so much more highly competitive between the parties and nasty within the media, and with heightened expectations about elections, that finding a spot where you’re not under the spotlight of all those problems, all the time, and you’ve tripled your salary? It’s often a no-brainer.

Kevin Kosar:

Yeah. That calls to mind a story told to me by a lobbyist I know. This is someone who spent almost three decades on Capitol Hill working in a niche policy area. It’s an area where there just aren’t a whole lot of experts around. This person not only had the expertise, but in all those years built up an awful lot of relationships and had a great knowledge of how to navigate Capitol Hill and to read the politics, and to know when it’s appropriate to have a conversation, and when Congress simply won’t be receptive to it. When I visited him in his downtown, posh office, I asked him, “How does it compare to being on the Hill?” And he said, “Oh, it’s so much easier. I work a normal workday. I can vacation more often. The clients are not demanding. I have a window office. I have somebody who can help me.” And on and on, this individual gushed about how after all those years of busting the hump in the legislature, life had suddenly become quite sweet.

Now, this leads me to my last question. Could Congress operate without lobbyists’ advice?

Timothy LaPira:

Yes and no. I’ll start with the “no.” No, for all the reasons I’ve already laid out: the difference between the specialists and specializing outside of Congress, and members of Congress who without choice have to be generalists. That mismatch right there means that they’re always going to rely on somebody with greater specialization and expertise. Typically, the way our system is made up is that those people are often going to be lobbyists representing these highly specialized interests. But they’re also going to be the wonderful scholars at AEI and other think tanks and universities, and other forms of expertise.

Congress is always going to need to know something from the outside. It’s literally why the Library of Congress existed from the very beginning. We needed the knowledge to be able to make sound decisions in Congress and in the White House.

On the flip side, going back to the “yes.” Could they operate without lobbyists? I think Congress could do well by reinvesting in their own internal expertise, and not just marginally, I think on orders of magnitude. If Congress could build up an internal knowledge-base and attract the kinds of expertise and specialization and talent that K Street lobbying firms are able to attract, they wouldn’t have to rely so much on lobbyists who are offering advice, but offering advice with their thumb on the scale. So, by shifting to internalize that expertise, Congress would be less reliant on outside experts.

And I frankly think that it wouldn’t be as difficult as probably your typical member of Congress would assume it would be. I think members of Congress are reluctant to spend money, because then they have to explain how they’re spending that money. They know that constituents think Congress is broken. So the question is going to be, how do you explain spending more money on an institution that’s broken? I think the answer is easy. One, it’s broken because you’re not spending money. And two, there’s no other game in town. Congress does have the Article One monopoly on creating policy and laws in our country. And I think we would do well by reinvesting in internal expertise, which would ultimately make us much less reliant on external lobbyists who are now making three or four times what they did when they were a staffer.

Kevin Kosar:

Alrighty. Professor Timothy LaPira, author of the book Revolving Door Lobbying. Thank you for teaching us about the relationship between lobbyists and Congress.

Timothy LaPira:

Thanks for having me, Kevin.

Kevin Kosar: Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Mikael Good and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you will share this podcast with others, and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging @AEI. We hope you have a great day.


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