Lobbying’s Changed, So Why Haven’t Our Perceptions of It?

Posted May 14, 2004 at 3:11pm

Former Reps. Thomas Hale Boggs (D-La.) and Leslie Arends (R-Ill.) — two of the longest-serving floor Whips in Congressional history — both helped oversee the creation of the Medicare program. Yet in the run-up to the vote on this landmark legislation, these two top vote counters probably never met on a daily basis with representatives of outside coalitions, nor were they barraged by e-mails, other forms of organized grassroots activism or a blizzard of think-tank reports that challenged or supported their leadership’s respective positions.

How times have changed. In 2003, when Congress voted on a major overhaul of the Medicare program, such Congressional leaders as House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) confronted all these challenges and more. It was a starkly different set of challenges than their predecessors, brought about by a fundamental change in how advocacy is practiced in Washington.

Instead of reality TV, the conventional wisdom about the lobbying industry needs a true dose of reality. Alas, drawing caricatures has always been easier than painting real pictures. So while changes in Congress over the past three decades are well understood and reported, most journalists mischaracterize what lobbyists do.

One of the reasons for this misconception is the dearth of media outlets that devote manpower to covering the lobbying industry. Roll Call, The Washington Post, National Journal and Influence.biz are just about the only outlets with even one full-time lobbying reporter. Compare that to the number of full-time reporters covering Congress and the differential is enormous. Deeper, more comprehensive coverage might begin to dispel some misconceptions.

Political scientist Conner McGrath recently wrote that “popular culture signally fails to show true reflections of the work on which professional lobbyists are engaged. These stilted stereotypes not only mislead the viewing and reading public, but contribute toward the fact that real political lobbyists are held in such low esteem by the general population.”

Just as Congress looks, feels and acts differently than it did three or four decades ago, so does the advocacy industry that surrounds it. Pundits and the media still unfairly paint them in the one-size-fits-all caricature of the ethically challenged “influence peddler.” Yet dig a little deeper and the new world of lobbying comes across as more complicated — in many ways a subtle mosaic with a great deal of diversity.

For one thing, the sheer size of the lobbying industry has ballooned. While a precise figure is hard to pin down, University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis notes that there were 4,000 “Washington Interest Representatives” in 1977 and 14,000 by 1991. It’s hard to imagine this number not escalating over the past decade.

Moreover, the participants are diverse, ranging from former legislative and executive branch policy experts to process specialists, communicators, researchers and fundraisers. Think tanks, grassroots firms, pollsters and media specialists also keep Congress in their sights.

Another aspect of diversity seldom appreciated is the scope of organizations involved in the advocacy industry. Despite the popular caricature that “lobbyists” do the bidding of corporate fat cats, some of the most powerful advocacy groups have nothing to do with — and even oppose — business interests. Examples include the National Education Association, the AFL-CIO or the Sierra Club, as well as a growing number of so-called 527 organizations that deploy media and grassroots resources.

In many ways lobbying now looks a lot like a political campaign: Defining an issue through research and polling, using media marketing techniques to generate popular support and utilizing ground troops are all part of the new advocacy arsenal. Having access to one subcommittee chairman and using that cozy relationship to promote someone’s private interest is no longer a sufficient strategy.

And as one side in this clash of interests uses more sophisticated and diverse techniques, lobbying has turned into an arms race. As one group effectively uses modern or non-conventional tools, the other side must respond in kind — or lose.

The modern advocacy industry has both supplemented and at times supplanted party leaders in Congress. Parties used to provide political resources — money, manpower and research — but now the advocacy industry offers many of these same tools.

Yet the advocacy industry can also work in tandem with party leaders when their interests align, providing the leadership with auxiliary resources to supplement their persuasive arsenal to keep members in line.

James Thurber, an American University professor, and Patrick Griffin, who has lobbied for the White House, private-sector clients and now serves as a senior adviser to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D), accurately capture many of these new trends in advocacy in a seminar they organize called the “Lobbying Institute,” run out of the American University Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. Yet their insights deserve broader exposure.

Appreciating the changes in the structure of Congress — its increased openness, its decentralization and its accountability to multiple stakeholders — is a first step to better understanding how these same shifts are mirrored in the lobbying industry. Both worlds have changed, yet “lobbying” is still a largely uncharted territory filled with little-understood inhabitants who are represented to the public as oversimplified stereotypes.

If conventional wisdom fails to explore this new and evolving land, our understanding of Washington will remain sorely incomplete.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of the Dutko Group, a lobbying firm. He holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.