The real impact of Interest Groups

Short version: not as much as you think.  Miller-McCune has a nice article highlighting the major findings from a groundbreaking new book on lobbying:

The real outcome of most lobbying — in fact, its greatest success — is the achievement of nothing, the maintenance of the status quo. “Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens,” says Frank Baumgartner, one author of the book and a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs. We see a pattern of no change, no change and no change — and then some huge reform.”

But those large reforms — such as health care for 32 million uninsured Americans under President Barack Obama, the scheduled phase-out of the estate tax under President George W. Bush, and the normalization of trade relations with China under President Bill Clinton — are far more often linked to a change in who inhabits the White House than to campaign contributions or K Street hires.

This paragraph– in addition to being a nice concise description of political science at work– shows why I’ve never been drawn towards Interest Group research.  It’s hard work:

Lobbying and Policy Change confirms these 50-50 findings more conclusively, delving into not one but 98 issues — chosen randomly — and going well beyond campaign contributions. The five authors, all of them political scientists, had the help of a small army of graduate students. They sifted through 20,000 lobbying reports and interviewed more than 300 key advocates, including lobbyists, government officials and the legislative aides and chiefs of staff of members of Congress, all of whom were actively trying to bring about change or preserve the status quo.

Though much of the article seems to suggest that all this lobbying balances out, it’s not at all surprising that when you get down to it, the wealthy prevail in American politics:

Lobbyists may not be the boogeymen the public thinks they are, but K Street does exemplify a fundamental problem with American democracy. It takes money to play the game, and the lobbying agenda in Washington is overwhelmingly the agenda of the wealthy…

The real losers of a system attuned to the desires of the wealthy and tilted toward maintenance of the status quo are the poor, who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars a month to spend on a lobbyist. Few in the Capitol are advocating for mental health care, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, patients’ rights, neighborhood safety or the economic security of working Americans. “The biggest indictment of the lobbying community is that it amplifies the voice of those who already have the most resources in society and leaves the people with the greatest needs completely voiceless,” Baumgartner says.

Actually, that’s a rather depressing conclusion about the state of our democracy.  Lobbying has a huge status quo bias– it is way easier to prevent change than to create change in our democracy– but after a couple hundred years the status quo has very much come to represent the values of those with the money.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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