The general public, political pundits, policymakers and the media agree: Washington is run by big business and corporate interests. Citizens and elected officials from both parties lament the role that business plays in shaping policy and political agendas. But is it so?

While it would be foolhardy to suggest that business dollars don’t matter in the policy process, political scientists have shown that the question of business influence is more complicated than is generally recognized. See, for example, Lee Drutman’s posting “What We Get Wrong About Lobbying and Corruption” about U.S. lobbying; for similar findings in the European Union see research summarized here.

In short, business doesn’t always get its way. It may be countered by politically skilled and sophisticated opponents from within and outside government, attract unfavorable publicity, or face the more mundane but significant challenge of dislodging the policy status quo.

But beyond knowing that business success is far from certain, it’s at least equally important to understand when and why business is most successful. To presume that policy outcomes are driven primarily by money spent on advocacy and campaign contributions — as most accounts of policy debates either imply or make explicit — directs us to “solutions” that are unlikely to alter any existing business imbalance.

In a paper newly published in Interest Groups and Advocacy, we and our collaborators analyzed how often business interests and other advocates got what they wanted from the policy process, and how their rate of success varied when they faced different types of opponents on a random sample of policy issues between 1998 and 2000.

We researched lobbying activity on 98 policy issues over four years.

We constructed detailed case studies on 98 separate issues that were identified by lobbyists chosen at random from disclosure reports filed with the Senate.

During our initial interview with each organization representative, we asked them what they were spending the most time on that week. We also asked them to describe what they had done and what the organization was trying to accomplish on the issue, to describe the type of opposition they faced, and to provide a variety of other information about their organizations.

We then also interviewed lobbyists on other sides of that policy debate (if there was more than one side), as well as knowledgeable legislative staffers and agency officials. We followed each of these issues for four more years and conducted follow-up interviews and documentary research.

At the end, we emerged with a firm grasp on who did and who did not get what they wanted on all 98 issues.

Business groups and citizen groups succeeded equally in a fair fight.

In the face of opposition, business and citizen-based interest groups had equal rates of success. In fact, during the Clinton administration, business interests were less successful than citizens’ groups; following the election of George W. Bush, the two were equally successful.

Specifically, the George W. Bush administration put business interests in a far better position in 2002 than they had been in 2000, on a few issues in particular. In line with lobbying from different coalitions of business groups, the Bush administration changed Clinton-era policies in order to relax EPA rules on mine waste disposal, repeal the estate tax, overturn ergonomic standards designed to reduce job injuries, and create a repository for spent nuclear fuel. In addition, the Bush administration passed a measure for prescription drug coverage under Medicare, which was helpful to the pharmaceutical industry.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these issues received a good deal of attention from the media — more so than did important issues on which citizen interests carried the day — including setting limits on chlorine byproducts in drinking water, allowing manufacturers to produce generic versions of patented AIDS drugs for sale in Africa, and requiring mortgage lenders to provide greater disclosure of the costs associated with their services.

So how has the narrative of business dominance prevailed? The media’s greater attention to policy outcomes that fit their favored narrative of business dominance certainly could give the impression that business interests have the upper hand in policy disputes even though, numerically, citizen groups were just as likely to realize success.

When were business groups more likely to succeed?

That being said, we did uncover one circumstance in which business interests appeared to have an advantage. When business lobbied on issues that drew no opposition or interest from others, it was often successful.

To say business has an advantage when it lacks opposition might seem obvious. However, a lack of opposition did not benefit other types of interests in the same way. When citizen- and occupation-based interest groups had no direct opposition, more often than not they were ignored by policymakers and other interests.

Why the difference? One possibility is that the issues on which business interests lack opposition are more amenable to easy resolution than the issues that do not draw opposition for other types of interests. For example, business succeeded in getting funding for CH-47 helicopters for the Army, a goal no group actively opposed. Given that the helicopters are equipment the Army uses and needs, an advocate for funding might, in the absence of opposition, push an appropriation forward.

That wasn’t true for some of the issues that citizen interests lobbied about without opposition. For example, although citizen groups seeking changes to the criminal justice system attracted no organized opposition, those groups also lacked the momentum and support needed to make measurable changes to the policy status quo.

Another reason for the difference is that partly because of superior resources, business interests can pursue their goals over a variety of issues, without having to choose which is most important.

When groups have fewer resources, as is usually the case for citizen-based groups, they must give priority to the biggest and most contentious policy battles.

Why business is winning the war.

So while business may lose individual battles, it is well positioned to win the war. It can act upon a broader agenda and pursue its interests through multiple issues.

Our research, then, suggests that the advantage of business in policymaking is both far from absolute and depends on a range of factors.

Why does this matter? For one thing, these complexities need to be taken into account when efforts are made to level the policy playing field. Restrictions on campaign contributions or lobbyist spending on gifts and meals can only go so far.

Levels of participation also matter. By having the resources and the chance to lobby in different executive, legislative and judicial arenas — but also in different congressional committees, regulatory agencies and even the public sphere — business interests can be effective in getting the policy outcomes they want when they’re unopposed, or opposed by interests that can’t fight every battle.

A truly level political playing field isn’t fair unless the game is played by more than one team.

Marie Hojnacki, Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State University; Jeffrey Berry, Professor of Political Science at Tufts University; Beth Leech, Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University; and Kathleen Marchetti, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dickinson College.