Inside the Sausage Factory

The cover story of this week’s Washington Post Magazine offers a fantastic look at how lobbyists make a living by helping some people take from others.  Every citizen should read it.  Casual observers of government may be surprised (and nauseated) to see how elaborate, expensive, and disingenuous such efforts have become.  (Students of public choice economics will not be.)  As author Jeffrey H. Birnbaum notes, it’s usually the wealthy who are trying to do the taking.

The article is about the travel industry trying to force taxpayers to fund the industry’s advertising campaigns.  (Birnbaum includes such gems as: “One thing everyone agreed on: The travel industry did not want to pay for the ads itself.”)  But the story could have been written about nearly any of the countless lobbying shops littering the D.C. landscape:

The explosion in the size of K Street, the locus of the lobbying industry, is an extension of the growth and reach of government. The ballooning federal budget has its tentacles in every aspect of American life and commerce. No serious industry or interest can function without monitoring, and at least trying to manipulate, Washington’s decision makers. The penalty for ignoring the federal government can run into the billions of dollars. Just ask Microsoft. The software giant was hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department in the late 1990s and, in 2001, agreed to alter the way it packaged its computer operating system. Before then, it had mostly ignored the nation’s capital.

Bad mistake. Chastened by its defeat, Microsoft has built a powerhouse presence in Washington, as have scores of other companies and industries. Lobbyists argue that it’s a relatively cheap investment. The Carmen Group, a mid-size lobbying firm, regularly compares its clients’ costs with the benefits it says they receive from lobbying. In its latest internal assessment, Carmen said it collected $15 million in fees from about 70 clients and delivered $1.5 billion in assistance – measured both in benefits received and in burdens avoided – a return ratio of roughly 1 to 100. Most clients still part with their lobbying dollars grudgingly. But they do part with them, which is why new buildings are going up all the time to accommodate the industry’s growth. Want a former senator to guarantee a meeting with a current senator? No problem. Half the senators who leave Congress for the private sector register to lobby. Need to know the history of a tax law and whom best to ask to change it? Easy. At least half a dozen consulting firms are composed of nothing but former congressional tax aides and Treasury Department officials who know as much as, and probably more than, the current people inside.

And why wouldn’t ex-lawmakers and aides gravitate to K Street? Lobbying jobs pay at least twice and sometimes three times government salaries. Serving in government is now viewed by many on Capitol Hill as a steppingstone to a lucrative career in bending government to the whims of paying clients. In many ways, lobbying now mimics the government it targets. It has become a bureaucracy, with its own language, its own peculiar ways of doing business and, most important, its own instinct to survive.

Indeed, the last thing any lobbyist wants is to win everything his or her client is seeking. That would mean an end to a retainer, the closing of the feedbag. Success for a lobbyist is not outright victory but, rather, just enough progress to justify the creation of an elaborate and well-funded lobbying apparatus. Even outright failure can underscore the need to lobby harder.

Lobbying is Washington’s version of a perpetual motion machine. Once it gets revved up, it rarely stops running. In fact, it tends to grow. 

All of which raises this question: why don’t we see more such stories?  Whatever the reason, Birnbaum deserves kudos for inspecting this small corner of the sausage factory.

Of course, the solution is not to restrict the people’s ability to lobby Congress.  All that sleazy lobbying is nothing more than “petition[ing] the government for a redress of grievances” – a constitutionally protected activity.  The solution, conveniently enough, is to respect the rest of the Constitution too.  Were the People to do that, those sleazy lobbyists wouldn’t get anywhere.