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Evan Horowitz

Lobbyists: Love ’em, hate ’em, rely on them

As unpopular as Congress is these days, there is one group Americans trust even less: lobbyists. If the polls are to be believed, Americans find lobbyists less trustworthy than members of Congress, car salesmen, and lawyers.

But while it’s easy to think of lobbyists as corrupt and cartoonish villains who manipulate the political system, there’s a reason they’ve become such an inescapable part of the political landscape. Lawmakers rely on their expertise. That’s true in Washington, and it’s also true in Massachusetts.

Do lobbyists help lawmakers, or manipulate them?

Both. Political scientists call it “lobbying as legislative subsidy,” and the basic idea is that lobbyists serve as a kind of ersatz legislative staff.

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Think of the breadth of issues that state legislators face, from tax policy to health care, education to the environment, elderly services to mass transit. With limited money to hire researchers, and limited time to evaluate complex and technical issues, legislators depend on outside experts to help them evaluate proposals. And that includes lobbyists, even if their expertise is tilted to reflect a specific viewpoint and serve a particular interest.

If you’re looking for an example of how this works, consider the American Legislative Exchange Council. Though it’s often maligned for shopping staunchly conservative, ready-to-sign legislation to friendly state legislators all across the country, there’s another way to think of its activities. It also helps very conservative politicians write exactly the kinds of laws they would otherwise write themselves, if they had the staff and technical expertise.

Why can’t legislators rely on advocacy groups instead?

Another option for legislators is to turn to nonprofit think tanks and advocacy groups. But this is no panacea. For one thing, there are legal limits to what many nonprofit research organization can say about specific legislation, which means they often have to speak elliptically about timely issues.

More generally, though, researchers and advocates often have their own agenda, just like lobbyists. In fact, many advocacy organizations also engage in lobbying. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — they are fighting for policies they believe in — but it means that the information they provide to legislators has its own kind of slant.

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How about increasing resources for legislators?

Compared with other full-time state legislatures, Massachusetts doesn’t have a large legislative staff. On average, there are about 4½ staffers for each Massachusetts legislator, as compared with 13 in New York and 17 in California. That not only makes it harder for legislators to do their own research, it also makes it harder for them to vet the information coming from lobbyists and activists.

Aside from increasing staff, Massachusetts could establish a legislative fiscal office or some other centralized research arm to take requests from legislators and provide timely, nonpartisan feedback and analysis.

The trouble with these approaches is that they would require money. Taxpayers would need to hire researchers, attract support professionals, rent office space, and generally make sure things were functioning as intended.

By contrast, lobbyists don’t ask a fee for the analysis they provide to legislators, which is one reason lobbying has become such a muscular force in Massachusetts and across the country. The trick, of course, is that the lobbyists want something in return. They want legislators to take a certain tack, focus on particular issues, and shape laws in the way the lobbyists think are best.

Evan Horowitz can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.