Connections are the currency of Washington lobbyists

 Source:  Spectrum News
Source: Spectrum News

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor

Lobbyists tend to be about as well regarded as used car salespeople. But are lobbyists really as corrupt as they are often portrayed? In recently published research by Gregory Koger and me, we argue that we should rethink how we consider the relationships between lobbyists and legislators.

The public tends to view lobbyists as self-obsessed hired hands who get paid inordinate sums to represent the interests of the rich and privileged. Moreover, lobbyists are often treated as indistinguishable from campaign donors, in that both are seen as seeking to extract favors from policymakers.

Academics tend to have a slightly more generous view of lobbyists for two reasons. First, lobbyists provide an efficient, effective, and knowledgeable source of high quality information that gets injected into the policy making process at all stages. This is generally a good thing because it can significantly help lawmakers fill gaps in their knowledge base. Second, lobbyists are an inevitable feature of democracy; the interests they represent are sometimes narrow, but they are interests nonetheless. Diverse representation is an essential feature of democracy.

Rather than treating a lobbyist’s campaign donation as an effort to buy a favorable policy, we argue that a donation might be viewed as an expression of a relational tie between a lobbyist and legislator. In a world where lobbyists are valued based on who they know, and how powerful those contacts are, lobbyists use campaign donations as a way to create, and more often than not, maintain relationships with members of Congress. In this view, lobbyists give to their friends and those with whom they wish to maintain contact. The donation is simply the currency of the transaction, but the expectation is that a connection is made between the lobbyist and legislator. The transaction is not a one-time exchange, but an investment in the expectation of a long-term relationship.

Using this framework, we expect lobbyists to support legislators with whom they share commonalities, and perhaps also those who most need their support (after all, campaigning is terribly expensive). We construct a network of legislators, where legislators are more closely tied to one another if they have received a donation from the same lobbyists. The more common lobbyist donors two legislators share, the more connected they are.

We use this network perspective because we are primarily interested in the legislative behavior that results from these connected relationships. This approach allows us to examine the extent to which any two legislators vote the same way. We call this co-voting. We expect that legislators who receive a greater sum of donations from the same lobbyists will be more likely to vote the same way, because the underlying relationship expressed by those donations indicates a meaningful commonality between the legislators. We think this commonality explains voting behavior because lobbyists seek to connect to legislators who share their views in some important way.

Our results show that a common lobbyist donation makes two legislators more likely to vote the same way when casting a vote on any individual roll call, even while controlling for party, geography, committee assignments, and other more typical factors that drive legislators’ voting behavior. We look at votes taken during the 109th Congress (2005-2006) and find that the effect is strongest for House members and Senators who are up for reelection.

Ultimately, we are agnostic about why common lobbyist donations cause legislators to vote the same way. The various and usual suspects that we control for (party, ideology, etc.) suggest that lobbyist donations affect roll call behavior beyond these typical factors.  We find that lobbyists seek relationships with legislators and use campaign donations to pursue these relationships.

There are underlying commonalities between the lobbyist and legislator that explain the donations and voting behavior, but we cannot be sure what, exactly, these commonalities are. If, however, the lobbyist was simply buying a legislator’s votes, the findings would not be so strongly associated with helping legislators during their electoral time of need.

Jennifer Nicoll Victor is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She is the lead co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Networks (2017) and serves on the Board of Directors of the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.


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