Lobbyists as “Strategic Advisers”

IN TUESDAY’S New York Times, opinion writer Thomas Edsall wrote about the changing face of lobbying since the passage of HLOGA, echoing many themes that have recently appeared on this blog.  On earmarks, for example, Edsall wrote that “…the lobbying firm Cassidy and Associates has paid a heavy price for the earmark ban.”  LobbyBlog had previously asserted that “for Cassidy and others, losing earmarks was like losing the ground on which they stood.”  Edsall also cited a recent study that used Lobbyists.info data:   “Using LaPira’s reasoning, total spending to influence legislative and regulatory outcomes in 2012 doubled from $3.1 billion to $6.7 billion.”  LobbyBlog had, of course, cited the same study: “The current figure, which only accounts for legally disclosed spending, is $3.31 billion.  LaPira estimates that over twice that – an eye-watering $6.7 billion – was actually spent last year.”  (For the record, $3.31 (not $3.1) billion is the correct figure).

If these excerpts are indications that Edsall is a fan of this blog, then your humble bloggers are pleased.  If, more likely, they merely highlight the general consensus among the few of us who write about lobbying that certain undeniable trends are reshaping the business, then your humble bloggers are no less pleased.  This is mostly because Edsall casts refreshing new light on the phenomenon of de-registration to supplement the old arguments about lobbying drifting into the shadows, or the inaccuracy of disclosure numbers (Edsall: “If you look at the numbers, it may seem that lobbying is in decline, but it isn’t; it’s just taking different forms.”  LobbyBlog: “A decline in reported lobbying is not always synonymous with a decline in lobbying.”)

For example, most commentaries on de-registration or the “driving underground” of a formerly functioning disclosure framework don’t even attempt to explain what these newly underground lobbyists are doing with themselves.  Edsall’s, on the other hand, focuses entirely upon this point.  “The action has shifted,” he writes, “to what is known in the business as strategic advice: how to convince and mobilize voters and opinion elites in support of a client’s agenda.”  This description demands greater clarity, which Edsall is quick to supply:

So what does this new strategic adviser actually do? He or she can plan out a legislative campaign or a drive to affect the implementation of regulation, determine which officials and agencies must be dealt with, and propose potential coalition partners….Interestingly, all this can be done without making direct contact with elected officials, congressional aides or top-ranked department and agency appointees and employees. This arms-length approach permits strategic advisers to avoid lobbying registration and reporting requirements.

Something is striking about the idea that “…all this can be done without making direct contact with elected officials….”  If this is so, are we still talking about lobbying?  The case can be made here that if the “unlobbyist” is refraining from the fundamental activities that define lobbying, then maybe lobbyists aren’t being driven underground but rather driven out.  Even if Edsall doesn’t make direct appeal to this point, he at least provokes one to explore it, and to explore lobbying’s future, rather than dwell on its present.   The future of lobbying: that, alas, is for another blog post.  Or, if he gets to it first, another article by Thomas Edsall.

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