Book Review: So … Lobbying Groups Don’t Have Much Influence?

Robert Kaiser’s new book, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, attempts to make the not-so-surprising argument that money and lobbyists dominate Washington, and that we are worse off as a nation because of it. That may be true, but if so, Kaiser’s book makes a very poor case.

Kaiser picks one of the town’s larger (once the largest) lobbying firms, Cassidy and Associates, to make his point. Kaiser describes how the firm basically invented the congressional earmark and proceeded to make millions of dollars from this innovation. He later describes how money has become increasingly important in the political process, and how lobbyist campaign contributions have helped corrupt that process.

The only problem with this argument is that, regardless of how true it may be, Kaiser unintentionally makes a pretty compelling case that the opposite is true — that the supposed influence of Washington lobbyists is not really that high. First, as Kaiser points out, earmarks constitute a tiny portion of the overall federal budget. While their existence may help politicians get elected, and may grease the skids for bigger ticket items, none of this suggests a particularly influential role for the lobbyists themselves. If all you are influencing is how Congress is spending a tiny fraction of the budget (and even that is arguable, given the role appropriators and congressional leaders play in the earmarking process), your influence over policy making is pretty small.

Kaiser does go on to describe the role of the Cassidy firm in three non-earmark situations, but they only underline how little influence the firm had. The first involved convincing regulators that cranberry juice should be labeled 100% juice (snore). A second involved helping the democratically elected leader of Taiwan get a speaking engagement in the United States when the State Department was worried that allowing it would upset mainland China. But then Kaiser goes on to show why this wasn’t particularly hard to do. And finally, Kaiser describes the role of the firm in helping to get the Seawolf submarine funded, but once again shows that the real drivers behind the policy were members of the Senate who were horse trading with one another and who couldn’t even remember what the Cassidy firm had done on the issue.

If anything, each of these examples suggested that the influence of these lobbyists was trivial. Later in the book, Kaiser describes how Cassidy was reaching a point where they suffered pretty high client turnover. The unstated assumption here must be that at least some of them were unsatisfied customers who were not particularly impressed with the results they were getting for their high monthly retainer fees. Even the attempts of Cassidy to add complementary additional services, such as PR, mostly turned out to be a bust.

So, if the influence of these DC lobbyists is overstated, what about their supposed corrupting influence on the political process through fundraising and political donations? Kaiser points out that the total cost of federal campaigns has skyrocketed in recent years, and that elected officials must spend countless hours on the phone raising money for their campaigns. But the share of these funds raised by Cassidy and similar firms is tiny. Kaiser quotes lobbyists who viewed their contributions as more like paying tribute because it was expected. Kaiser also notes that the lobbyists were on the receiving end of these fundraising requests, they did not initiate them. The real story here was not one of lobbyists corrupting some otherwise honest policymakers, but one of elected officials hitting up lobbyists through a form of legalized extortion.

Kaiser then points out a series of reforms enacted in recent years to further reduce the ability of lobbyists to corrupt the process, including gift bans, cooling off periods that make congressional staff and others wishing to enter the profession wait a year or more before they can lobby, and limits on campaign contributions.

All of the above suggests that the real story behind Kaiser’s book is how surprisingly little influence these lobbying firms have, and how most of the money they make is at the expense of lightweight business executives who don’t really know the political process and pony up big bucks to cover their behinds.

The subtitle of Kaiser’s book is: “The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.” Based on what is actually in the book, though, a more accurate subtitle might have been: “How Dumb Business Executives Are Getting Scammed by High Rolling DC Lobbyists and Not Accomplishing Very Much.”


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