In national politics, the influence of money is a perennial concern, and the 2012 election cycle has involved a particular frenzy of campaign spending. But to focus exclusively on election spending is to overlook the staggering sums—more than $3 billion every year since 2008—that are devoted to old-fashioned lobbying.
To an outsider, the variety of organizations that seek influence in Washington can be startling. There is the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, and the Handcrafted Soapmakers Guild. There is a lobby for duck hunters and one for motorcyclists. The astonishing diversity of organizations that lobby might give the impression that they represent the full spectrum of American life, from pro-business groups like the Chamber of Commerce to unions like the AFL-CIO, and from right to left—with plenty of groups, like the National Safety Council, that have no obvious ideological coloration.
But to conclude from this diversity that all Americans have at least some kind of organization looking out for them would be wrong. In decades of researching American political lobbies, we have found that there are huge gaps in who is represented. And, as an old Washington saying goes, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Figuring out who, exactly, is missing from the table is an important question, but not an easy one. It’s not hard to identify the noisiest organizations; it’s much harder to look at a crowd and systematically figure out who’s not there. However, our new database—the largest ever compiled—of organizations that seek influence in Washington politics allows us to answer this question in a new and more definitive way.
We began with the Washington Representatives Directory, published annually by Columbia Books, a listing of organizations active in Washington politics, and cataloged every organization listed in four different editions ranging from 1981 to 2006. Then we scoured available public records to compile a picture of each organization’s history, resources, lobbying and PAC spending, and other activities. To capture the nature of the interest being represented, we classified each organization into one or more of 96 categories. The database currently includes nearly 37,000 organizations that were active in Washington at some point in the period covered.
In analyzing our results, the most sweeping conclusion we could draw about the thousands of organizations active in Washington is that, in the aggregate, their interests tilt strongly in the direction of the haves. More than half represent the interests of business in one way or another. Only 5 percent represent broad public interests (whether conservative or liberal or neither) such as wilderness preservation, auto safety, national security, human rights abroad, lower taxes, reproductive rights, and citizen education. Only 4 percent represent people on the basis of such identities as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, sexual orientation, or gender. A mere 1 percent are unions. And less than 1 percent advocate on behalf of, or provide social services to, the economically needy.
The database also offers a unique look at who doesn’t have any representation at all. If you are a bartender, or a jobless worker dependent on unemployment benefits, or an unpaid intern, there is simply no organization dedicated solely to looking out for your interests in Washington.
Taken as a whole, our research offers a stark picture of exactly who has a megaphone in American politics and who doesn’t even whisper. The imbalance poses a challenge to American democracy, one that can easily trump the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. When some interests are not even part of the conversation, public officials cannot give equal consideration to the needs and preferences of all. By specifying clearly who is involved and who is not, we hope to offer useful guidance to policy makers seeking to establish greater balance—and to make voters aware that whether they have a voice in Washington depends very much on who they are.
The right of citizens—acting on their own or together—to let public officials know what is on their minds is fundamental to democracy. For Americans, it is protected by the First Amendment. But lobbying is not simply a form of protected political speech that we must tolerate as part of our commitment to freedom of expression. Lobbying actually serves an essential function: It provides policy makers with detailed, substantive information and political intelligence about how proposed policies will affect various stakeholders.
Although American politics has been punctuated by periodic scandals involving cash in briefcases, the money spent by organizations seeking to influence federal policy is not illegal boodle and, by and large, does not go to stretch limos or fancy lunches with senators. Instead, the sums registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act are spent on such mundane matters as paying the salaries of the advocates who make the case before federal officials.
As political scientists, our concern is not that too much money is devoted to the activities—lobbying, generating phone calls and e-mails to policy makers, doing policy research, and so on—that organizations undertake in pursuit of influence in Washington. What does concern us is balance—whether those organizations fairly reflect the makeup of the nation whose government they influence. And on this front, our research reveals some significant gaps. For example, it has shown that that there is no organization in Washington dedicated to the interests of the millions of people, mostly women, who are at home full time caring for young children. Although they are deeply affected by government policies on such things as divorce, inheritance, Social Security, and day care, they do not have a dedicated voice in the debate.
For those in the labor force—whose livelihoods are affected by government policies ranging from government contracting decisions to the regulation of pensions to the minimum wage—there are thousands of membership associations active in Washington that represent people in terms of their occupations. Many of them represent people in professional or managerial occupations. There are organizations for bond lawyers, plastic surgeons, financial executives, cell biologists, and art therapists. The millions of people who work in white-collar, blue-collar, or service jobs also have some organizations other than unions to represent them. There are, for example, organizations representing raptor breeders, pilots, home inspectors, and even lobbyists themselves. But only about one-eighth of Americans are in unions, and large swaths of the workforce go unrepresented. Unless they are in a union, those who work as office receptionists, Walmart associates, bellhops, telemarketers, bank tellers, laundry workers, and van drivers have no occupational association to represent their interests in Washington. Perhaps most strikingly, for those whose jobs are considered unskilled, other than unions, there are no organizations at all on the Washington scene.
Similarly, there are other American groups with clearly shared economic interests who have no organized Washington representation. We looked explicitly for organizations that represent recipients of social welfare or tax benefits for the poor—for example, jobless workers, public housing tenants, or those who benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP (the program that succeeded food stamps), or TANF (the successor to what used to be known as welfare). These are constituencies with an obvious stake in federal policy, but we did not find a single association of beneficiaries of means-tested government benefits representing themselves. In other words, as small-government advocates push to cut America’s social-services budget, there is no group representing indigent beneficiaries to push back.
We also found no organizations representing parents of children in Head Start programs, commuters who use mass transit, part-time and adjunct college faculty, or criminal defendants awaiting trial on federal charges, all of whom are affected by federal budgets and policies.
A lobby, even a powerful one, can’t always deliver. Examples like the tobacco settlement in 1997 or the regulation of drilling in the Arctic, make clear that even very powerful interests that lobby extensively sometimes lose important fights. Despite the cynics, political scientists have demonstrated that public policies aren’t simply sold to the highest bidder, and that the correspondence between an organization’s investment in political action and its political success is very imperfect.
It can, however, be crucial to have an organizational presence in Washington, especially when policy changes are in the works. Having an advocate on the scene can prevent a defeat from being even more devastating or pave the way for future policy success. The 1994 ban on semiautomatic weapons, for example, was a rare, though significant, defeat for the National Rifle Association. However, the ban lapsed in 2004, and, thanks in part to the vigilance of the NRA, it has never been reinstated.
People whose concerns are not represented by organizations may have other ways of making their voices heard. As individuals, they can get involved in many ways—by, for example, voting, working in campaigns, protesting, and contacting government officials. Political parties, the media, or other organizations may take up the cudgel on their behalf. But professional lobbyists exert a profound influence on government by focusing with laser precision on political developments that matter to their members: They track the tiniest details of rule changes, cultivate relationships with policy makers, scrutinize drafts of legislation or regulations, and make suggestions that are eventually adopted by sympathetic legislators.
The effectiveness of such intense focus is one reason to be worried not just about those who have zero representation but also about those whose advocates are spread too thin. Take, for example, the American food industry. Those who process and sell food to Americans are represented by many organizations: general-purpose trade associations like the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute; more narrowly focused trade associations such as the Snack Food Association, the National Frozen Pizza Institute, the International Food Additives Council, and the American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association; and companies like Kraft, Campbell’s, and Kroger. By contrast, the handful of organizations that advocate for food consumers—that is, all of us—and the unions that represent industry workers have to cover an immense range of issues and are unlikely to be able to pay close attention if an issue arises having to do with dehydrated onions or food additives.
What, if anything, is to be done? We wish that we could be upbeat about the possibilities for reform, but it will not be easy. Inequality of political voice through organizations is deeply entrenched. To choke off the voices of the noisy would deprive policy makers of useful information and expertise. Besides, the current Supreme Court would be unlikely to allow constraints on organized political activity. Still, policy makers can recognize the extent to which they hear a limited set of perspectives and try to seek a broader set of messages. One interesting experiment occurred during the 1970s, when some government agencies had programs to subsidize citizens groups that otherwise could not have afforded to participate in protracted and complex rule-making hearings. Such programs of “intervenor funding,” which disappeared during the Reagan administration, could be brought back.
Congressional hearings can also play a corrective role. Though they sometimes seem like political theater, hearings, on average, bring in a broader range of voices and interests than does lobbying. Financial resources are less central to participation, and the initiative rests more with policy makers in Congress than with the organizations. Business interests, which account for nearly three-quarters of the dollars expended on lobbying, are a much smaller share of the testimonies at hearings—less than one-third. Congressional policy makers could make even greater efforts to ensure that hearings include all voices.
What our research shows, most clearly of all, is that lobbying, for all its breadth, does not reflect America. To listen to the silences in politics requires logic not altogether different from that used by Sherlock Holmes in “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” When a Scotland Yard detective observed, “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” Holmes replied, “That was the curious incident.” Even though our research does not yield a clear-cut prescription for what to do, it does remind us to notice when the dog does not bark and to consider what may be amiss.