Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lobbyists and the control of information

I have in the past commented on the fact that in Colorado he handicap our legislators by term-limiting them. We do not give our legislators the opportunity to develop an expertise in any of the wide ranging policy areas that they must work in. Beyond that we equip our legislators with bare bones staffs that barely have time to answer the phones, much less brief a legislator on the minutiae of complex policy. The end result is that our legislators must rely on lobbyists as they have the in-depth knowledge of the issues. The problems that arise from this arrangement are obvious.

Today Lee Drutman of The American Prospect notes that this is an issue at the Federal level and that despite all of the rhetoric about lobbying reform no one is noting this obvious problem.

In recent weeks, John McCain and Barack Obama have sparred over the role of lobbyists in their campaigns. While both are eager to position themselves as the candidate of reform, neither has proposed a plan that tackles the real sources of lobbyists' power. Real lobbying reform must start by acknowledging that control of information is as central to lobbyists' power as control of money.

Lobbyists are influential because, as the main providers of policy information and expertise to policymakers, they increasingly define the terms of political debate. Even if we funded all elections publicly and banned lobbyists from running campaigns, they would still play a major role in the legislative processes for a simple reason: They know a lot of stuff. Increasingly, it is even lobbyists who are drafting the laws. Lobbyists like to say that Washington couldn't function without them. They may be right.

Lee offers three solutions for this,

1. Hire more staffers, pay them better and emphasize more family friendly hours.

I'm all for this and I think the first two items can be done relatively painlessly. I'm not sure though how you would go about making these positions more family friendly. There is an incredible work load in these offices. Hiring more staff may reduce the work load for each staffer a bit but the culture of Washington is one of long hours and late nights in the office. It's not as though people are just hanging around the office though, work is being done at night, votes are being cast, the press is calling. You wouldn't just need to change the culture of Washington but also the way that Congress and the press function. It's a nice idea but it's not at all realistic in my opinion.

2. Increase funding for the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office.

Again, this is a pretty uncontroversial proposal that is easy to support. However, are they really not churning out enough reports? Are they unresponsive to members requests? It seems to me that if Congress members have these services now but are not already availing themselves of the services just creating more research doesn't really address the fundamental issue. Why do members of Congress lean on lobbyists when they have these resources at their disposal? That's a question whose answer is probably part sociological and part political. Sociologically because many lobbyists are former staffers or Congressmen themselves and staff and legislators are comfortable getting advice from them. Political in that lobbyists still control a lot of money that candidates need for campaigns.

3. The government should fund public interest lobbyists

This is the one solution that seems the messiest - by far. What issues and positions are in the public interest? What about funding for a lobbyist that represents the interests of a religious group? Are we really going to pay "public interest" lobbyists in line with what corporate lobbyists make? In many cases that amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in an entry-level position. Also, there already are public-interest lobbyists. Lots of them. I understand the thought process behind this proposal but I think it is an unworkable solution that raises more issues than it solves.

While I don't agree with many of Drutman's solutions it is refreshing to see someone talking about lobbying and the control of information. For my money I would like to see the state of Colorado greatly expand the size of legislative staff and pay higher salaries. I think that would go a long way to diffusing the control that lobbyists have on the state legislature. How do you fund that? One solution would be to increase the licensing fee for lobbyists. That wouldn't generate all of the revenue needed but it may be enough to make the diverting of general fund dollars to such a project a little less painful.

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