This is a good time for carefully researched and balanced discussions of political reform and Lee Drutman has now stepped in and done his part with an excellent book about lobbying, The Business of America is Lobbying (2015).  It is not a screed and instead looks closely at the growth and changed character of this activity within the corporate sector.  Drutman concludes with proposals for reform but only and admirably after he pares away preconceptions and identifies precisely what he believes the problem to be.

Corporate lobbying has become pervasive, Drutman claims, but he does not mean by that that it is always effective.  Huge amounts of money are spent unwisely or inefficiently and Drutman assigns some of the responsibility for the excess to the lobbyists themselves.  It is a business, after all, and those engaged in lobbying are immodest, he finds, in appraising the value of their efforts.  Their clients, relying on this appraisal, ask for more of the same, which the lobbyists are only too happy to provide.  (In fairness, lawyers should be quick to admit, lobbyists are not the only professionals convinced of their indispensability.)  So a great deal of money is spent on lobbying.

Of course not all of it is wasted.  Drutman is judicious in evaluating lobbying effects: he writes that “contrary to public opinion, politics is not a vending machine.” Id. at 23.  But in certain circumstances, depending on the salience of the issue and other factors, lobbyist can be quite effective, and the well-paid experience and savvy lobbyists are the most effective. One clear finding is that lobbyists who come out of government, spinning the revolving door as they go, can boast of a relatively impressive record of success for their clients.  Wrong to believe that all their lobbying dollars are worthwhile, the corporate employers of lobbyists are not mistaken to believe that sometimes it pays– and they are well advised to pay– to have the best lobbying talent on their side.

The lobby industry in corporate America thrives, Drutman argues, on the interaction of two facts of contemporary national government: the immense complexity of law, and the limited resources available to government in managing the process by which this law is made.  As a result, overburdened congressional and executive branch staff can be forced into a dependency on lobbyists.  It is to the lobbyists and their supporting cast that, lacking adequate staff and resources, Members and staff must look for whatever information and analysis they are unable to generate on their own.  Drutman’s reform proposals are focused on this imbalance in resources.

Meanwhile corporate lobbyists understand the complexity is also opportunity, and rather than play pure defense, companies can pursue affirmative, “particularistic” strategies by which they arrange for the introduction into bill or rules of beneficial measures.  Once they have succeeded, they have to protect their success: much of the work of lobbying is to defend the status quo.  However the work of the lobbyist is done, there always remains more to do.

Drutman puts campaign finance into useful perspective.  The “quid pro quo corruption” model is too simple: this is not really the issue, nor do sophisticated actors believe that it is. Their spending on lobbying vastly exceeds what they commit to campaign contributions.  Here, as in the rest of account, Drutman displays balanced judgment.  That the role of campaign finance is overstated does not require ignoring it.  Some may still have qualms that political giving is, as Drutman describes it, so much a “part of the Washington culture.” Id. at 95. and they may follow him in expressing concern about the time that politicians spend on “dialing for dollars” and about the effect of the donor company they keep on their political worldviews and priorities.

But the time taken up by campaign finance in considering the effect of wealth on government—on the threat of quid pro quo corruption– has been disproportionate to the return.  Drutman writes that “focusing only on the electoral aspects of influence is limited,” and he notes usefully that the writing on this topic has “largely exhausted itself at an impasse of inconclusive findings and methodological limitation.” Id. at 16, 237.

Meanwhile, there is the question of the campaign process itself and the effect of new channels of spending on electoral choice.  This morning, Dana Milbank decides that we have arrived at the point where the description “one billionaire, one ballot” is apt.  His point is that the voters and the parties are losing their grip on the presidential nominating process as wealthy individuals assume control at the helm of Super PACs.  He is worried about the corruption of campaigns, with corruption understood as a breakdown resulting in malfunction; and it is no less worthy of close attention because it is not tied so tightly to the sale of office.

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