Corruption and Lobbying in the United States

Ezra Klein, a policy wonk who blogs at the Washington Post (see here), has an interesting article in the current edition of The New York Review of Books on lobbying and its relation to corruption in the United States Congress.  Drawing on the books Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist and Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, he suggests that corruption where lobbyists make political donations in exchange for the votes of Congress men and women is not the most common form of influence.  These two quotes summarises what Ezra argues is the dominant form of lobbying:

If the only possible “corruption” were the corruption regulated by bribery statutes, then I’d be the first to insist that ours is not a corrupt Congress.
Hall and Deardorf proposed an alternative: lobbying, they argue, is

“a matching grant of costly policy information, political intelligence, and labor to the enterprises of strategically selected legislators. The proximate objective of this strategy is not to change legislators’ minds but to assist natural allies in achieving their own, coincident objectives.” […]

In this model, the point of lobbyists is not so much to change votes as to change the legislative agenda. Perhaps you are a legislator interested both in reforming the nation’s drug laws and in cutting taxes on large corporations. If you focus your time on tax cuts for large corporations, you’ll get an enormous amount of money, aid, and attention from lobbyists. If you spend your time on drug policy, you’ll be ignored and your campaign will be underfunded.

It’s a very interesting form of corruption, and one completing different to that which is commonly practiced in Indonesia–although some of my informants did discuss a social aspect to deal making.  One of the reasons I think that corruption as practiced in Indonesia is so debilitating is because it displaces the role of ideas and evidence in the making and implementation of public policy.  Klein, in contrast, suggests that the process of idea formation, and the collation and dissemination of evidence has been effectively captured and monetised by lobbyists. But he argues in the last third–somewhat in contradiction to the first third–that the lobby industry is less effective when it comes to issues that the public pays attention to and cites the recent healthcare and financial services reforms as examples.

I think there’s a counterfactual problem with these examples.  It seems he’s basically arguing that these reforms would have been much more pro-industry if they were not in the public eye.  But I think he should be comparing what the outcome might have been if there was high levels of public interest–which one would expect for such critical reforms–and much less industry lobbying.

The article is available here: Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money


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