Lobbying and the Gift Economy

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I really enjoyed Ezra Klein's piece in the New York Review of Books, an issue which, to my liberal eyes, looked a lot simpler than it evidently is:


The key mistake most people make when they look at Washington--and the key misconception that characters like Abramoff would lead you to--is seeing Washington as a cash economy. It's a gift economy. That's why firms divert money into paying lobbyists rather than spending every dollar on campaign contributions. Campaign contributions are part of the cash economy. Lobbyists are hired because they understand how to participate in the gift economy. 

Lobbyists build up relationships with politicians they like and, in many cases, agree with. They give those politicians money and they invite them out for dinner, or to their corporate box to watch ball games. They argue for the client's interests, but they don't argue too hard, or cross any ethical boundaries. And, over time, the politician comes to see the lobbyist as a friend. After all, the lobbyist is doing all sorts of thing that, in a person's normal life, would lead to friendship, or at least a warm business relationship: he's supporting the politician's work and spending lots of time having interesting conversations with him and showing up at his events. 

The lobbyists are smart and personable and interesting and connected. They have expertise he needs, and connections that can help him, and information about what other political actors are doing that gives him a leg up. It is a perfect mixture of ideological comradeship, financial perks, and personal affinity. But it is the sense of comradeship and affinity that makes the whole thing work. In many cases, the lobbyist actually is the politician's friend. She is his former staffer, or a colleague he used to see three times a week at the congressional gym. 

After all, there are any number of wealthy, well-connected people who might like to bend a senator's ear. But senators have limited time and busy schedules. They can't make space for every supplicant with a thick bill roll and a fat rolodex. And so clever lobbying shops have figured out a way to get to politicians: hire their friends. Hire the people they have already demonstrated an interest in talking to, and accepting counsel from.

Ezra sketches the resulting problem like this:

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. The disparity is even greater on smaller issues where there may not be another side to engage the debate: if a group of paper companies spends a couple of million dollars hiring lobbyists to persuade politicians of the merits of a change to an obscure provision of the tax code that will net the paper companies a couple of billion dollars, there is likely no one on the other side of that issue amassing materials to explain why this change isn't a good idea.

As always, I recommend you read the whole thing. I actually had trouble figuring out what to excerpt.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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