The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cities regularly hire lobbyists. It pays off for the richest cities.

Biden signed a spending bill that will fund landmark infrastructure projects. Will poorer areas be left behind?

President Biden speaks about his "Build Back Better" agenda in D.C. last year. (Sarah Silbiger/UPI/Bloomberg News)
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Last month, President Biden signed into law an omnibus spending bill that includes funding for the landmark bipartisan infrastructure deal enacted in November. To prepare for that windfall, cities and counties across the country are turning to professional lobbyists to help identify funding opportunities, craft grant applications and communicate with the agencies responsible for administering the various programs.

In fact, more local governments disclosed lobbying activity last year than at any point over the past decade, as The Washington Post has reported. In my recent book “When Cities Lobby,” I used nearly a decade of lobbying disclosure data as well as interviews and case studies to find that lobbying allows cities to secure more state funding. But richer cities see the biggest gains.

Rail transportation funding is a racial equity issue

Here’s how I did my research

I collected data on the lobbying disclosure records of every municipality in the United States with a population of at least 5,000 for the years from 2006 to 2015. I focused primarily on cities lobbying their home states, where most city advocacy takes place. But the dynamics are similar when cities lobby congressional lawmakers or federal bureaucrats.

Each state has its own lobbying disclosure system. Some states make their lobbying reports publicly available; others provide data only upon request. After determining which cities lobbied state officials each year, I merged this information with a variety of financial, demographic and political indicators for each city to better understand what kinds of cities lobby and what results from their efforts.

Lobbying works, especially for rich cities

Using data on state funding for city programs ranging from health and welfare to education, I examined whether cities secured more money after hiring a lobbyist. Of course, cities that choose to lobby are probably different from other cities on any number of dimensions. To make sure any changes in funding are really due to lobbying and not to other factors, I compare funding received by the same cities as they start and later stop their lobbying contracts.

The figure below shows the state funding received from 2009 to 2014 by two kinds of cities: places that did not lobby during those years and cities that started lobbying in 2012. As the data indicates, cities get more money from the state after they hire lobbyists relative to non-lobbying cities.

But some cities benefit more than others. Americans often view the lobbing industry unfavorably in part because they suspect that the wealthiest interest groups and corporations wield disproportionate political influence. That was certainly true in this case. It turns out that cities with higher median incomes receive more funding per capita when they lobby — in part because they spend more money and tend to lobby on more bills.

A double-edged sword

It seems that professional lobbying might exacerbate inequality across cities. But the story is not so simple. In addition to lobbying for funding, cities of all income levels also rely on lobbyists to communicate local priorities with their elected officials in other levels of government and to advocate for policies that will benefit their residents.

This is particularly true for cities facing political challenges. For example, cities are more likely to hire lobbyists when redistricting maps disadvantage them or when state legislators are not ideologically aligned with city residents representing them in the state capital. And many state legislatures, often led by Republicans, are using a tactic known as “preemption” to override city plans to raise wages, regulate the sharing economy and pass anti-discrimination measures. Lobbyists are a key resource for cities trying to resist these efforts.

In other words, the ability to lobby can be a double-edged sword for cities. Lobbying offers an essential tool for local leaders seeking to amplify their voices in other levels of government. Many lobbyists represent blue cities in red states or cities facing redistricting or preemption battles. But higher-income places have also figured out how to strategically use lobbyists and are particularly adept at securing more grant money and shifting state funding their way.

How Biden’s infrastructure package might leave behind poor and minority communities yet again

The Biden administration has said that it wants to distribute the infrastructure funding fairly, helping small and disadvantaged communities that have often been left behind. Toward that end, it plans to offer technical assistance with grants and a simplified application process for eligible localities. While some cities use lobbyists to help them successfully navigate and negotiate with different levels of government, it’s not clear yet how the Biden administration will prevent infrastructure grants from going to cities that can afford the biggest players.

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Julia Payson (@payson_julia) is an assistant professor at New York University and the author of “When Cities Lobby: How Local Governments Compete for Power in State Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2021).