From the Desk of a Political Scientist: “For Sale? Interest Groups, Lobbyists, and Politicians”

Tom Knecht

Associate Professor Of Political Science

Westmont College

February 2016

In a press conference before the Iowa Caucus, Donald Trump told the crowd, “The fact is that whether it’s Jeb, or Hillary, or any of ’em—they’re all controlled by these people! And the people that control them are the special interests, the lobbyists and the donors.” The American public tends to agree with Trump. A New York Times/CBS poll showed that 85 percent of Americans believe politicians reward big-money donors with policy favors. Moreover, a Gallup Poll revealed that Americans find lobbying to be the least honest and ethical of all professions, even shadier than car salesmen, ad execs and members of Congress. Clearly, people with this perspective locate the true seat of power on K Street, not Capitol Hill or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nevertheless, many political scientists consider this widespread disdain of interest groups and lobbyists misplaced for two reasons: (1) interest-group money rarely buys a politician’s vote, and (2) lobbyists are usually honest people.

And, no, the American Political Science Association is not selling oceanfront property in Arizona.

What does interest-group money buy? The evidence shows a strong correlation between the amount of money an interest group contributes to a politician and how that politician votes: more money equals more favorable votes for the interest group; less money results in less favorable votes. But, as we all learned from Introduction to Statistics, correlation does not imply causation. Consider the two causal mechanisms that could produce a correlation between money and votes. The first possibility is that interest groups use their money to buy a politician’s votes; this is the position of Trump and most of the American public. A second, and equally plausible, possibility is that interest-group money follows the votes. In this scenario, interest groups donate to those politicians who already support their position. Many scholars in my profession hold this position. For instance, political scientist John Wright found that in the 1980s and 1990s, tobacco companies donated to politicians already opposed to more governmental regulation. In this case, Big Tobacco didn’t buy anyone’s vote; it just rewarded those members of Congress who shared a common interest. Think of this another way: How much money would the NRA have to pay Hillary Clinton to channel Charlton Heston, hold an AK-47 over her head, and snarl: “From my cold dead hands!”? Or how much money would it take to convince Ted Cruz to put a flower in his hair, lead America in a Texas-twanged rendition of Kumbaya, and advocate throwing all our guns into the deep, blue sea? I doubt there is enough money in the world to effect either change.

What does interest-group money buy if not votes? First, it helps the right people get elected and stay in office. If an interest group has identified a stalwart supporter in Congress, they obviously want that person to say in office for a long time and don’t mind paying for the privilege. Second, interest-group money buys access. All things being equal, politicians are far more likely to sit down with a generous financial donor than with non-donors, a fact that politicians use to their advantage. Lobbyists routinely receive dialing-for-dollars calls from members of Congress who say, “I’m hosting a $1,000 per plate dinner this Friday. How many tickets do you want?” The message is clear: Want access? Pony up! This congressional shakedown turns on its head the conventional view that interest groups are the puppeteers who use money to pull politicians’ strings. Finally, money buys activity. Navigating the labyrinthine D.C. legislative process takes effort, and interest-group money can buy a “horse” or a member of Congress willing to expend the necessary energy on a group’s behalf. While none of this seems sporting in an ideal democratic world, it’s not the perfidious, backroom, quid pro quo that most people assume exists between politicians and interest groups.

Lobbyists are honest? Most people think “lobbyists” and “honesty” go together about as well as “Trump” and “humility” or “egg nog” and “sushi.” But when lobbyists deal with members of Congress, they usually behave honestly as their entire career depends on access to politicians, and trustworthiness is the key to that access. A lobbyist who lies to a member of Congress loses all access to that member forever—members of Congress don’t like to be lied to [insert own joke here]. Moreover, the offended member of Congress will likely encourage her colleagues to also sever all ties with the lying, no-good lobbyist—members of Congress can be quite vindictive. Consequently, lobbyists have a strong career incentive not to lie to members of Congress.

None of this suggests that interest groups and lobbyists always champion the public good. A series of highly questionable Supreme Court decisions have given interest groups—including corporations and unions—the ability to spend unlimited amounts of largely unregulated money to spread their message. This “issue-advocacy” advertising doesn’t have to be fair, transparent or even remotely truthful. Consequently, individuals and/or groups with more money have more (not necessarily better) political speech, which offends my conception of political equality. And although lobbyists rarely lie to members of Congress, they are pretty good at spinning issues. In the Hollywood movie Thank You for Smoking, Big Tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor reframes smoking not as a public health concern (he admits smoking is bad for you) but rather as a matter of liberty (you have the freedom to make bad choices). Spinning isn’t necessarily lying, but it’s not completely truthful. So the groups with the most money to spend possess the greatest ability to spin political issues for the American public. In the end, the group that can spin is the group that can win.

I tend to believe that money has a corrupting influence in American politics, just not in the way that most Americans think. Interest groups and lobbyists usually can’t buy off members of Congress with a paltry PAC contribution. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we’ve embarked on a troubling new era in which Super PACS spend massive amounts of dark money to shape public opinion. Perhaps we should worry less about interest groups buying politicians’ votes and worry more about interest groups buying our own.

TOM KNECHT is an associate professor of political science at Westmont College.