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Revolving door lobbyists and interest representation

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We do not assume relatively fixed economic interests and relatively volatile political issues to be perfectly aligned. But we do assume that issue expert lobbyists will tend to represent a set of organizations with highly similar interests.

  2. 2.

    Though a revolving door lobbyist’s work sequentially precedes their lobbying employment in time, it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for that employment. Accordingly, we treat previous government work status and current lobbying employment status as independent, though we empirically examine the relationship between those select lobbyists who had worked for the government.

  3. 3.

    By definition, the identities of registered lobbyists is public information. However, we choose to keep them anonymous here. Lobbyists’ names will be made available by the authors upon request for replication purposes.

  4. 4.

    The two-sample difference in mean test for former members of Congress suggests that the 0.41 per cent nominal difference is not significantly different from 0, z=1.49, P=0.135.

  5. 5.

    LD-2 reports are filed at the registrant-client level of analysis. Individual lobbyists may be listed for as few or as many issue areas mentioned on these reports. This measure disaggregates these reports to the lobbyist-issue area level, and sums.

  6. 6.

    A description of the original sources coders used to identify biographical data for each lobbyist can be found in Table A1 in the appendix.

  7. 7.

    Typically, these jobs were as judicial clerks, which does not match the intuitive definition of the revolving door. We report them here, but exclude them from subsequent analyses.

  8. 8.

    CRP’s study is not a direct comparison to our sample, as they do not distinguish former members of Congress employed by the private sector who do or do not register to lobby.

  9. 9.

    Thirty-three in-house lobbyists had more than one client in 2008 because they switched employers at some point during the calendar year. In these cases, we coded the lobbyist’s contract status according to their destination employer as listed in the fourth quarter, and treat the results as measurement error.

  10. 10.

    The LDA requires lobbyists to report clients only if they earned US$5000 or more on their behalf on lobbying activities. Many lobbyists consult clients on legal and public relations matters as well, so while they may continue under retainer in a given reporting period, they may be engaged in activities that do not require reporting.

  11. 11.

    In both models, we assume that revolving door effects on clientele diversity do not decay over time – having previously worked in the federal government is an individual characteristic that remains important to client recruitment over time. To consider the potential for endogeneity, we examined a two-stage version of Model 1 that predicted revolving door status on lobbying specialization in the first stage. Estimation results did not significantly differ from those reported in Table 6.

  12. 12.

    We also collected data on the timing and duration of former government positions, but we are not confident enough in their reliability for inclusion in our analysis. Data were missing for more than half of the sampled lobbyists. Duration and timing data can be identified for more recently employed lobbyists who worked in Congress using the LegiStorm database, but most lobbyists’ biographies do not explicitly state start and end dates of government employment.

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Acknowledgements

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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Correspondence to Timothy M LaPira.

Appendix

Appendix

Table A1

Table A1 Original Source Materials For Lobbyists’ Previous Employment

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LaPira, T., Thomas, H. Revolving door lobbyists and interest representation. Int Groups Adv 3, 4–29 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/iga.2013.16

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Keywords

  • interest groups
  • lobbying
  • revolving door
  • Lobbying Disclosure Act
  • Congress
  • congressional staff