The Magazine

Lobbyists ♥ Obama

It's a golden age for the 'advocacy' business.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By GARY ANDRES
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Like most political reforms, the Obama administration's attempt to clean up lobbying is beset with unintended consequences. The president's policies are producing an explosion in interest-group activity, and much of the growth is taking place outside the scope of federal disclosure and other regulations.

The expansion of government always causes lobbying to grow, and Obama is enlarging Washington's reach. The bigger, more complicated, and more activist the federal government becomes, the more the affected interests mobilize. Columnist Robert Samuelson calls Obama's bigger government a "gift for K Street." The president's promise to banish special interests from the political arena, Samuelson writes, is "doomed to fail" because "the only way to eliminate lobbying and special interests is to eliminate government."

Samuelson is partly right. Lobbying growth in the last four decades closely tracks the expansion of the federal government. More complicated laws, a proliferation of congressional subcommittees, the expansion of legislative staff, and increased federal regulatory volume all induce affected parties to devote more resources to Washington. Since the 1970s, the number of associations moving to the District, the percentage of large corporations with a presence inside the Beltway, and the roster of issue-based advocacy groups have all spiked. Political scientist Beth Leech and her colleagues published a paper in 2005 concluding, "Groups do not automatically form and come to Washington; there must be a demand for them. Government creates that demand." Government is doing so now at an accelerating pace as the federal leviathan marches further into the auto, financial services, and health care sectors.

What's more, those affected by President Obama's promise to bring "change" to Washington play both defense and offense. Anytime a new policy challenges the status quo, interests respond by maneuvering to avoid risk and exploit opportunity. Labor unions, environmental groups, business organizations, and professional societies seek to reshape bad proposals to avoid costs (higher taxes, new rules) and secure advantages (new spending, the shifting of costs to competitors). At present, while many business interests are on their heels, liberal groups like trial lawyers, unions, and greens are making gains unthinkable during the last eight years.

Yet perhaps the most important change is taking place in the world of advocacy itself. Here, the president's caricature of special interests perpetuates and masks another important shift. Obama's narrative is simplistic and ugly: Lobbying is all about some fat cat in an expensive suit handing out cash and cigars to lawmakers, while plying them with three-martini lunches in exchange for Bridges to Nowhere. This doesn't resemble the real world.

Today, lobbying, like government itself, is a large and complex enterprise. While the number of registered lobbyists in Washington doubled between 2000 and 2006 (from about 15,000 to 30,000), many believe that is just the tip of the iceberg. Political scientist James Thurber of American University believes the real number is three or four times larger.

In structure and tactics, the lobbying world looks a lot more like a well-organized political campaign than the classic individual "influence peddler." Its denizens are engaged in direct advocacy, but also in research, polling, message development, advertising, grassroots organizing, new media, and more.

Like many other aspects of politics--such as the proliferation of so-called 527 campaign finance organizations, following the "reforms" to ban soft money--lobbying has changed faster than the government's ability to regulate it.

Consider two lobbyists. The first arranges for 10 face-to-face visits with lawmakers to urge the defeat of a piece of legislation. He or she should register as a lobbyist. The second produces a media or grassroots campaign with exactly the same message, aimed at the same 10 lawmakers. He or she is not considered a lobbyist under the law. Only some modes of lobbying activity are regulated, and use of the new, unregulated lobbying tools is growing.

Many get around Obama's "Scarlet L" by giving their work another name. Former lawmakers and former senior administration officials offer high-priced advice, strategic information, and intelligence about how to affect public policy but call themselves "strategists" instead of using the "L" word--and don't register as lobbyists.