How divided government affects lobbyist influence in Congress

As a result of November’s mid-term elections, the national government will transition from a unified government, in which members of the Republican Party control the House, Senate, and the White House, to divided government, with members of the Democratic Party gaining control of the House of Representatives. Much post-election commentary has focused on internal politics of the two parties, particularly Democrats’ battle to determine whether or at what cost current Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will reassume the speakership. Beyond these internecine struggles, divided government also impacts policymaking in Congress and encourages gridlock. While there is some debate concerning how, how much, and under what conditions divided government actually reduces legislative productivity, it is reasonable to say that it shifts the focal point of legislative debates from differences within one party toward differences across the parties. In an era of party ideological polarization, this fundamentally alters the kind of support a given bill needs to be viable.

Like legislators themselves, organized interest groups lobbying the federal government must adapt to these changes. There is some evidence that they are doing so, hiring, through the metaphorical “revolving door,” former Democratic staffers with connections to the newly empowered House Democratic Caucus. But the effects of divided government on lobbying may go beyond firms’ hiring practices to affect what it is about lobbying that makes it influential, and what kind of influence lobbying has.

My article “Prioritized Interests: Diverse Lobbying Coalitions and Congressional Committee Agenda-Setting” (accepted at the Journal of Politics) examines the effect of the lobbying coalitions aligned for and against a bill on the likelihood that that bill is marked up or reported out of committee. Even in the modern party-centric Congress, committees remain the first and most dramatic winnowing point for most legislation, and remain important centers of internal congressional expertise. As such, most lobbying occurs on bills at the committee stage. If lobbying can influence which bills make it out of committee, then it shapes Congress’s legislative agenda as well as its capacity to address pressing public policy problems.

To examine this possibility, I use data from Maplight on interest groups’ public position-taking for and against over 4700 bills introduced in the 109th to 113th Congresses. I find that committee chairs appear to select for markup those bills that are supported by coalitions of lobbying groups. However, not all coalitions are created equal. Large coalitions, for example, tend to be less successful than smaller coalitions at influencing committee consideration, all else equal. Coalitions comprised of interests that give large amounts of contributions through political action committees (PACs) are similarly not associated with committee consideration: using an inclusive measure of PAC contributions arrayed by interests on each side of a bill, I find that the association between relevant interests’ PAC contributions and committee consideration of legislation is substantively trivial and, indeed, statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Instead, coalitions that gain committee consideration of their desired legislation tend to exhibit what I term “interest diversity”; they are comprised of organizations representing many different industries, social causes, and other interests. This “interest diversity” makes a substantial difference in a bill’s chances of clearing the committee consideration hurdle.

As an example, consider the interests aligned for and against two major Republican initiatives of this past Congress: First, the failed American Health Care Act (AHCA), intended to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act; Second, the successful Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which cut corporate and personal taxes and repealed or reduced many federal tax breaks. Though both repealing the ACA and cutting taxes have been mainstay Republican priorities for years, the difference in legislative outcomes invites explanation. While most news coverage has focused on the votes of a few pivotal legislators in each case, interest groups were also lobbying furiously on both sides of both bills. Although the organizations lobbying against the AHCA represented a much more diverse array of interests than the bill’s supporters,  the opposite was true of the TCJA. In particular, note that while the organizations opposing the TCJA were more numerous than the organizations supporting the bill, they were less diverse in the interests they represented. On the other hand, the diverse interests loudly opposing the AHCA may have provided political cover to the pivotal “no”-voting Senators, who in turn may have allowed any conflicted colleagues in either chamber to “vote yes and hope no.”

Why might interest diversity matter? Committee agenda space is a scarce commodity that committee chairs try to allocate in the most efficient way possible. This means granting consideration to bills they like, but also preferably to those that stand a chance of further legislative advancement. Robin Phinney’s excellent book on diversity in lobbying coalitions suggests that, in general, diverse lobbying coalitions are useful because their diversity makes their combined message more persuasive. I argue that coalitions exhibiting interest diversity in particular combine this persuasive messaging with the ability to connect to the district interests of, and thus gain better access to, a wide range of legislators. In this sense, an interest diverse coalition forming in support of a bill provides an early indicator that that bill is likely to remain viable throughout the legislative process. Committee agenda-setters thus can use interest diversity as a cue when deciding which bills to grant markup to in the first place.

Lobbying During Divided Government

Concerns about legislative viability are exacerbated during divided government. Divided government makes many bills less viable in an absolute sense, because it requires a wider range of preferences to be satisfied for any given bill to pass into law. This makes efficient committee agenda-setting that much harder, and thus makes informative cues about legislative viability more valuable. Because such informative cues can be provided by interest diverse lobbying coalitions, diverse coalitions may be more effective during divided government. Indeed, during the periods of divided government (the 110th, 112th, and 113th Congresses) in the data, interest diverse coalitions were more influential than in periods of unified government. Large-but-homogenous coalitions, and coalitions that give high levels of PAC contributions, do not get a similar bump during divided government.

So what does this mean for the next two years of divided government? Some legislators may be reasonably wary to expend too much effort on advancing legislation, fearing it will die quietly in the other chamber if not in their own. Similarly, interest groups building lobbying coalitions might be inclined to focus on defense; after all, defending a preferred legislative status quo is easier when all legislation is harder to pass. But for their top priorities, these and other policy entrepreneurs should consider how they might cultivate diverse coalitions. What industries, or social causes, or other interests might support their legislative priorities? Instead of focusing on satisfying individual interests, they should consider how their legislation might garner support from diverse, if not necessarily strange, bedfellows.


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Topics: Representation & Leadership
Geoff Lorenz
Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. I st...