Revolving door lobbyists and interest representation
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Although experience inside the halls of power afford lobbyists valuable political, policy and procedural skills that can improve the deliberative process, it also gives them privileged access to former employers that others do not have. Washington’s revolving door evokes legitimate ethical concerns, such as when former legislators resign their seats to take lucrative jobs representing the very industries they regulate. However, social scientists know surprisingly little about the revolving door beyond such sensational, albeit important, cases. To shed more light on the broader phenomenon, we systematically explore the revolving door on a large scale to answer a simple question: Do revolving door lobbyists represent different interests than conventional lobbyists? If, as revolving door proponents imply, these lobbyists work on behalf of organized interests solely for their specialized subject-matter expertise, then we would expect them to represent clienteles that are no different than conventional lobbyists. Alternatively, if they represent a wider variety of economic interests than conventional lobbyists then we assume they are hired more for their ability to get a foot in the door than to serve as policy expert adjuncts to government. Using evidence from original data on the professional biographies of roughly 1600 registered lobbyists – which we link to data from almost 50 000 quarterly Lobbying Disclosure Act reports – we expose a significant transparency loophole in the law. Because lobbyists are not required to continuously disclose their ‘covered official’ status – the statutory definition of revolving door – periodic lobbying disclosure reports effectively hide the revolving door from public scrutiny. Instead, we rely on our more comprehensive information on lobbyists’ connections to previous employers to more accurately measure the size and scope of Washington’s revolving door, and to investigate how these connections affect which interests they represent. We find that revolving door lobbyists have worked mostly in Congress, tend to work as contract lobbyists rather than in-house government-relations staff and are more likely to specialize in lobbying for appropriations earmarks. Then, after controlling for a variety of lobbying specializations, we show that former members of Congress are no more likely than other lobbyists to attract a more economically diverse set of clients than their conventional-lobbyist counterparts. However, congressional staffers who had worked their way up the organizational ladder on Capitol Hill do. We infer that well-connected congressional staffers who spin through the revolving door sell access to key decision makers in Congress, not their industry- or issue-specific technical or substantive expertise. Simply, the revolving door problem is not limited to a handful of headline-catching former legislators, is much bigger than the existing lobbying disclosure regime reveals and – most importantly – significantly distorts the representation of interests before government. The practical implications are clear: lobbying transparency rules, cooling-off periods and other restrictions are insufficient disincentives. Interest group demand for access is simply too strong. We advocate enhancing lobbying transparency by expanding the statutory definitions of lobbying activities, requiring lobbyists to disclose more details about government employment and shifting some of the disclosure burden to democratically accountable government officials themselves.
Keywordsinterest groups lobbying revolving door Lobbying Disclosure Act Congress congressional staff
This research was supported by a 2012 American Political Science Association Small Research Grant. We would like to thank James Madison University students Zuleika Lim, Gwen Murtha and Rachel Wein for their assistance and Frank Baumgartner, Lee Drutman, Beth Leech, Sean Lowry and Jacob Straus for comments on previous versions of this article.
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