How Does Lobbying Control U.S. Politics?

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A recent examination of lobbyist spending from The Washington Post suggests that lobbying doesn’t necessarily result in legislative action.

In fact, The WP reports that there was no correlation between a recent decrease in lobbying spending and bills/resolutions, no correlation between legislation and lobbying spending spikes from an annual perspective, and the one correlation — that lobbying spending and spending from the federal government both tend to increase in parallel — could be explained by lobbyists ramping up their efforts when they know an increased spending allowance is present. I’d also posit that years in which federal spending increases and lobbyist spending also increases might be explained by economic conditions, rather than one causing the other, or even one following the other.

So if lobbyist spending isn’t predictive of congressional action, then what can lobbying numbers tell us? For one thing, it tells us who is putting the most money into influencing lawmakers and on what topics the most concern is focused. And on some occasions, that can inform us of the general public’s greatest concerns as well, though one does not by any means match the other. The Wall Street Journal reports that the to five largest spenders were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the American Medical Association, and Dow Chemical. Google managed to tag eighth place.

The Chamber of Commerce spent $54.37 million, and Dow Chemical spent $9.98 million. The WSJ draws its data from OpenSecrets.org, which also offers a ranking of top industry spenders. The ranking places pharmaceutical and health product companies as the top industries both for 2014 and for a general average of all years since 1998. Insurance comes second, with over $78 million compared to pharmaceutical companies’ more than $119 million.

Interestingly though, lobbying efforts this year were on topics more in line with what we’ve been seeing in the news than what you might consider directly related to pharmacy, commerce, or insurance interests. For example, Open Secrets reports that immigration and net neutrality both saw some pretty heavy attention and funding in the second quarter. Both issues saw money from the National Association of Realtors, who also funded lobbying on the reauthorization of the “Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, flood insurance, mortgage relief, and measures to make streets safer and more bicycle-friendly,” according to Open Secrets, so its legislative attentions seem to be split between topics with high attention and items with more clearly related connections to its industry.

In a 2011 Gallup poll seven out of ten respondents said that lobbyists had too much power. Lobbyists were rated last out of a list of twenty-two other individuals, including members of Congress, lawyers, and car salesman. People don’t trust lobbyists and tend to see them as companies with large wallets who can therefore amplify their voices louder. Compared to major corporations (67 percent), banks (67 percent), and even the federal government (58 percent) in Washington, people still are more likely to consider lobbyists having too much power.

To a degree the mindset that leads to Gallup’s ranking makes sense. People see lobbyists as exerting pressure on federal government; they are concerned that lobbyists may have power over government via money from major corporations. But considering lobbyists’ inability to draw out results, at least based on The WP’s findings, do people inflate their influence and power? Ultimately, both yes and no. Money certainly has a great deal of power in politics, and campaign financing from lobbyist groups is especially concerning there. Smaller interests do get lost behind the issues seeing the most pressure for attention with the greatest fiscal force. Plus, just because Congress doesn’t necessarily get more done when lobbyists spend more, that doesn’t mean lobbyists haven’t forced a focus on topics that might otherwise have gotten less attention.

On the other hand, when you consider an issue like immigration reform, it becomes clear that firstly, the problem would have been a major item as a result of current events regardless of lobby focus (and lobbyists have been loudly demanding progress on immigration for some time), and secondly, no amount of money is going to overpower the current partisan freeze in Congress and influence a passable bill suddenly into being. Lobbyist groups with big money behind them may be powerful, but there’s a limit to even their power. And with elections of particular import, constituents retain power over Congress as well, or else politicians risk removal in the fashion of former majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is leaving in August after losing a re-election campaign.

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