Limiting the Power of Corporate Lobbyists Via Competition

Last week we featured an important article by Lee Drutman and Steven Teles proposing that Congress build up its “resistance” to special-interest lobbying by expanding its internal capacity for fact-finding and analysis. We also published an excerpt from Drutman’s forthcoming book, The Business of America Is Lobbying, which offers two other “demand-side” ideas for countering the power of corporate lobbyists now that it’s obvious “supply-side” restrictions on money in politics and government won’t be accepted by the courts. Both involve the idea of competing with the lobbyists since we can’t directly curb them. The first is to create federal subsidies for lobbying representation for demonstrated public interests:

One analogy is to our legal system. Indigent criminal defendants are given court-appointed lawyers because we have decided that everyone should have the right to a lawyer when they interact with the justice system. Why does the same principle not apply to politics? Doesn’t everyone whose interests are materially affected by the political system deserve the right to a lobbyist?

Certainly, there are difficulties in determining who has a legitimate claim for lobbying representation, and how much representation they deserve. But here’s one way it could work: Groups advocating for a diffuse interest would have to demonstrate that their perspective was shared by a threshold percentage of citizens, and that the existing lobbying community was not adequately representing this viewpoint. Imagine a three-stage process. First, an underrepresented perspective would have to gain a certain number of signatures (perhaps 25,000) and advocates of the perspective would need to demonstrate that they were being outspent by at least a threshold ratio (perhaps 4 to 1), and that a diffuse group of citizens were affected. Then, that perspective could be included in a regularly occurring poll that the government conducted to test for widespread support in the country. If a threshold percentage of citizens (perhaps 25 percent) agreed with the perspective, a federal subsidy would be awarded so advocates of that position could hire a lobbyist. Subsidies could be awarded based on the level of support and the ratio by which advocates for that position were being outspent by powerful interests. A more aggressive version of this proposal would require well-funded interests on the other side to fund their opposition, in order to guarantee a fair fight.

Alternately, rather than award a direct subsidy to the underrepresented perspective, the federal government could create an Office of Public Lobbying, maintaining a team of public lobbyists who would then represent different public interest clients before the government.

Another idea from Drutman is to make shadowy lobbying activities more transparent to those who are seeking to fight them.

What if Congress passed a Congressional Lobbying Procedure Act that created a set of uniform processes for congressional lobbying? Such a system could take advantage of modern technology and require that any advocacy be posted within forty-eight hours on a central website. Each report would contain a short summary of the meeting, who attended, and what was advocated for.

Any white papers, draft legislation, or other leave-behinds would need to be posted in electronic form as well. The website would also serve as a repository for all arguments and advocacy. A series of clicks would take any interested member of the public to a corpus of arguments for or against particular public policies, creating a central clearinghouse…..

This hypothetical Congressional Lobbying Procedure Act would change lobbying in several ways. First, it would level the playing field between corporate interests and diffuse interests. It would make lobbying less about hiring armies of well-connected lobbyists who can spread out all over Capitol Hill and more about developing convincing arguments and summaries that would inform congressional offices.

It would also become easier for diffuse interests to know what corporate interests are actually arguing, which would allow them to respond to those arguments in a timely matter (and vice versa). Ultimately, this website could serve as a kind of policymaking marketplace of ideas, where different interests would have the opportunity to respond to each other in real time. It could harness the competitive nature of lobbying in service of accountability, would provide an instant source for all arguments on all sides, and would help congressional staffers new to an issue to know where they could find more information.

These and other ideas are part of a badly overdue effort by progressives to cope with corporate lobbying via existing resources rather than hoped-for restrictions the Supreme Court has all but ruled out for the immediate future. It’s worth not just a shot, but many.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.