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Assessing business advantage in Washington lobbying

Abstract

Popular accounts of business involvement in politics typically suggest that business interests enjoy relatively unfettered success in getting what they want from government. Scholarly work is more equivocal. In this article we use a random sample of 98 policy issues between 1998 and 2002 to examine whether business interests and other advocates get what they want from the policy process, and how their rate of success varies when they face different types of opponents. We find that business’ efforts to affect public policy typically draw challenges from other types of interests. In the face of opposition, business is less likely relative to citizen interests to achieve its goals. But business does appear to have an advantage in the relatively rare instances when it acts to advance its interests on issues that do not draw opposition or interest from other actors. Under these circumstances, it is much more likely than other types of advocates who face no opposition to realize its policy goals. Our findings clarify how the nature and framing of issues and a favorable political climate can prove essential to business’ prospects for achieving policy success.

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Notes

  1. Unions are categorized as representing citizen interests because, like the other types of organizations included in this category, the interests they advance are often those of ordinary, unskilled workers and the policies they promote are not intended to benefit solely their members (for examples, see Novkov, 2001; Hacker and Pierson, 2010). Gerber (1999) and Strolovitch (2007) make similar arguments to justify their inclusion of unions in categories with citizen or public interest groups.

  2. We set 30 percentage points as the cut off because it provided a relatively conservative indicator of the dominance of or balance between the different interests making up a side. For example, if business interests constituted two-thirds or more of the advocates associated with a side, it seemed reasonable to expect that the dominant voice of that side was the voice of business rather than that of the other outnumbered organizations.

  3. The following advocates were initially classified as ‘other’ organizational or ‘other’ governmental interests: consulting firms, individual non-government experts, individual state or local government officials, ad hoc congressional committees, foundations and think tanks, and coalitions. These advocates were either difficult to classify (for example, a coalition) or sufficiently distinct (for example, a foundation) from the types of governmental and types of organizational interests we used to classify advocates. After the sides were categorized according to the dominant organizational and governmental interest their membership reflected, we examined the composition of any side that included one or more of these ‘other’ advocates to assess whether their presence led to misclassified sides. A side initially classified as having a mix of organized interests might also include a coalition comprised exclusively of business interests. In conjunction with the other business interests associated with the side, the presence of the coalition could (depending on its size and the number of organized interests associated with a side) lead us to reclassify it as primarily reflecting the interests of business. Our re-examination of the sides that included ‘other’ advocates led us to reclassify 23 sides.

  4. Because of the widespread participation of members of Congress across the sides, they are the most common form of government opposition any organization encounters.

  5. We identified 104 pairs of sides from the 214 active sides for which we can compare the primary type of organizational interests on one side with the primary organizational interests on the other side.

  6. In addition to the data shown in Table 2, we computed the proportion of opposition that sides of each interest type encountered. With two exceptions, sides dominated by business interests were the most frequent opponent a side encountered. For example, 25 of the 50 pairs (50 per cent) with at least one side dominated by the interests of citizens involved opposition from business interests. As another example, 14 of the 30 pairs (47 per cent) with at least one side characterized by a mix of different interests involved opposing sides dominated by business. The only sides that were more likely to face opposition from a source other than business were business-dominated sides (citizen interests were the modal opponent) and those sides dominated by the interests of particular occupations or government related organizations (sides dominated by business interests and sides representing the interests of government actors, exclusively, each comprised about a third of the opponents encountered).

  7. The measure of issue salience used here is a standardized scale based on counts of congressional bills, congressional hearings, testimony at congressional hearings, documents and statements found on House members’ websites and the website for the Senate, floor statements made by members of Congress, National Journal stories, newspaper stories and television news stories (see Baumgartner et al, 2009).

  8. A total of 5 of the 10 most salient study issues are included among the 23 issues where business interests are opposed by sides representing the interests of citizens. These issues are China trade, the rise in gasoline prices, Medicare prescription drug coverage, repeal of the estate tax and creating a repository for spent nuclear fuel. In 2000 (2 years after the start of the study), the preferences of citizen groups were reflected in the outcomes of the policy debates about the estate tax, and creating a repository for spent nuclear fuel, whereas business interests prevailed on the issues of China trade and gasoline prices. By 2002, the status quo on the estate tax and the nuclear fuel repository had changed to reflect the outcomes sought by business and business sides also prevailed on the Medicare drug coverage issue.

  9. The success business enjoys when it is unopposed does not appear to be driven by its pursuit of private benefits; only three of the nine issues on which business is unopposed involve policy benefits of this type. Although research has shown that business interests are very active in pursuing private policy ends (Hansen et al, 2005; Godwin et al, 2008, 2012), very few private benefit issues were included among the 98 sample issues. If the sample had included more regulatory issues, more private issues would no doubt be apparent (see Godwin et al, 2012).

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Correspondence to Marie Hojnacki.

Appendix A

Appendix A

Our research uses data collected through the Advocacy and Public Policymaking Project (see Baumgartner et al, 2009; lobby.la.psu.edu). The project team conducted interviews with more than 300 Washington DC-based policy advocates (for example, representatives of organized interests, congressional staff, agency personnel) active on 98 randomly selected policy issues. The issues were identified and the interviews conducted over the last 2 years of the Clinton administration (1999–2000) and the first 2 years of the George W. Bush administration (2001–2002). Through these interviews and by searching systematically through publicly available documents, the project team mapped out the constellation of government officials and organized interests mobilized on a given issue, and, through follow-up telephone interviews and by monitoring news, and official websites for 4 years after the initial interviews, the project team was able to find out who realized some measure of policy success and who did not.

The issues included in the study were selected by a set of organizational advocates called issue identifiers. These issue identifiers were chosen at random from the list of organized interests that registered to lobby Congress in 1996, the last year for which these registration data were compiled in a usable format at the time the team began the data collection (see Baumgartner and Leech, 1999). During the interviews, issue identifiers were asked to do the following: select the most recent issue they had spent time on; describe what they had done and what the organization was trying to accomplish on the issue; narrate the appeals and arguments they made when they spoke with others about the issue; specify with whom they had talked about the issue; describe the type of opposition they faced; and provide a variety of other information about their organizations. Interviewees were also asked to identify the ‘major players’ – those actors playing a prominent and important role – on each side of the debate. This typically elicited two lists, one of government officials and other outside advocates who shared the goals of the advocate, the other of a set of actors in opposition. Sometimes mentioned as well were sets of major players who were not necessarily opposed to what the advocate was trying to accomplish, but were seeking another outcome nonetheless. That set of major players who shared a policy goal was termed a ‘side’. The actors associated with a side may or may not have been working together; the team designated them as a side if they sought the same outcome even if they did not coordinate their activities.

The project team identified 214 ‘sides’ over the 98 issues and attempted to interview a leading representative from each side on the issue; in each interview the team asked the same questions about who was involved (about three interviews per issue was the norm). The number of sides per issue ranges from just one to seven but typically is just two: one side seeking some particular type of change to the existing policy and another side seeking to protect the status quo. The number of advocates on each side was determined by a count of major players who were mentioned by others (or, occasionally, were revealed through subsequent documentary searches). To be considered a major player, the organization representative or elected or unelected government official had to take a leading role in actively advocating either the retention of the status quo or some policy change. Major players could include organizations that directed the overall advocacy effort on an issue and were the primary liaisons with congressional staff; members of Congress who served as bill sponsors and whose offices were involved in shepherding a measure through the chamber; and agency officials working with groups outside of government to develop language for a proposed rule. Many more interest organizations and other actors may have been involved in the issues (for example, taking a position, co-signing a bill), but they were not considered major players unless they took a leading role. Government decision makers who played a neutral role but who may have been the object of considerable lobbying also were not included. The number of major players per side ranges from just 1 to over 50; the average (median) side is composed of eight advocates. Overall, the team identified 2221 of these players across the 98 study issues. The 214 sides are the primary unit of analysis in our investigation as they represent the interests engaged by, and in conflict over, each of the study issues.

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Hojnacki, M., Marchetti, K., Baumgartner, F. et al. Assessing business advantage in Washington lobbying. Int Groups Adv 4, 205–224 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/iga.2015.3

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Keywords

  • business
  • advocacy
  • lobbying
  • public policy
  • policy success