The conventional wisdom about political influence is often summed up in the familiar three-word mantra: “follow the money.” It’s a mantra that assumes politics is a high-dollar vending machine with politicians and policies for sale. It suggests an obvious solution: get all the money out of politics. And while we’re at it, let’s also get rid of all the lobbyists, and all the “special interests.” Let’s make it so that Congress is “dependent upon the People alone,” as Larry Lessig put it, channeling James Madison.
I suspect this how many people want democracy to work. But it’s simply the wrong way to think about it, and it points to the wrong solution too. If we are concerned about the influence of special interests and lobbyists, we need to embrace a seemingly counterintuitive solution: more lobbying. But also different lobbying – lobbying that offsets the power of concentrated interests, not simply reinforces it.
Interest groups are inevitable and frankly, healthy, in politics. Any large political community will contain diverse people who want different things from government. For this reason, there will always be a need for intermediary institutions to organize competing interests. In other words, politics actually requires what we call “special interests.” Wishing away interest groups is basically asking for politics without any actual politics, as I argued in this post two weeks ago.
If we accept this, the question becomes how best to organize interests so that public policy at least approximates the general interest of “the people.” The Founders did this by setting up a government with checks and balances and multiple centers of power. While it may often be inefficient and there are plenty of reasons to grumble about it, it’s the system we have. So we need to work with it.
In order for this system to work well, it requires a certain amount of parity among different interest groups – a parity that we lack today. The steady growth of corporate lobbying over the last four decades — the subject of my new book, The Business of America is Lobbying – has tipped representation in Washington overwhelmingly toward large corporations. The types of organized interests we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse publics like consumers or taxpayers – now spend $1 for every $34 business spends on lobbying, by my count. That’s up from a 1-to-22 ratio in 1998. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business.
One reason for this lobbying imbalance was identified by the political scientist James Q. Wilson more than 30 years ago. He noted that many policies tend to concentrate benefits and costs on companies, while dispersing benefits and costs among citizens. The former motivates political action; the latter does not. This makes it much easier for a company like Citigroup to spend $5.3 million a year in lobbying expenditures but much harder for Citigroup customers to organize to, say, reduce fees. And it doesn’t help that many benefits that corporations enjoy are hidden in complicated legal language and indirect by design, making them difficult to challenge.
The knee-jerk solution is to somehow limit what lobbyists can do. This was the approach of the 2007 Honest Leadership and Government Act and President Obama’s executive order banning lobbyists from serving in his administration (issued on his first day in office). But both mostly just led to fewer people registering as lobbyists and more shadow lobbying.
The better approach is to counter existing lobbying with more lobbying. Something resembling the general interest is most likely to emerge when advocates for all perspectives have the resources to make their best case. But we need to make sure all perspectives have those resources. For a long time, we’ve left advocacy to the market. Economic winners have reinvested their profits in politics. Losers haven’t.
One solution is to develop a system of “public lobbyists” who advocate on behalf of perspectives that are under-represented in Washington. We could allow anybody who feels like they have an under-represented perspective on a public issue to start a petition.
Once a petition gains a certain threshold number of signatures (say 25,000), its perspective would get included in a regular deliberative poll that Congress conducts to test for public support.
If that perspective gains a certain threshold level of support (say 25 percent), Congress could allocate “public lobbyists” to ensure that policymakers hear this under-represented perspective, and that members of Congress would have support for legislating on the issue, should they want to. This would involve creating a team publicly-funded lobbyists, who could build up specialized expertise in a particular set of issues and allocate their time based on relative need.
Another approach would be to develop a matching system for a new class of “citizen lobbying” organizations that advocate on behalf of diffuse citizen interests. Such organizations would get a 6-to-1 match in public funding as long as they didn’t raise any contributions over, say, $500, and received no support from for-profit entities. We could require these new “citizen lobbying” organizations to spend the majority of their budget on lobbying.
A third approach could be a hybrid of these two approaches, with some public matching and some direct subsidy. The advantage of public matching is that it requires organizations to actually reach out to citizens to raise support. And in so doing, it incentivizes valuable engagement and education activity, making citizens feel more efficacious.
The risk is that certain perspectives, while important, may get crowded out by “sexier” issuers when it comes to people contributing a few dollars. For this reason, there may be value in not having to raise money for certain perspectives.
While any system does run some risk of being gamed, the risks of doing nothing to re-balance our advocacy system are greater. If we want a representative democracy, we need to take affirmative steps so that all interests are actually represented in the policy process.