Do Expenditures Matter?

“Q3 LOBBYING EXPENDITURES DOWN,” “Lobbing Spending to Rebound in 2014,” “K St. Outlays Dip in December,” – such headlines splash across the pages of Washington-based newspapers. It has become so routine to discuss the business of lobbying exclusively in these terms that one feels the itch to challenge convention and to pose the following question: can expenditures stand alone as a reliable measure of advocacy’s vitality?

The answer is obviously no, which most people with a critical eye on Washington lobbying recognize . The shrewd reporter will temper his headline with subtler analysis, explaining, for instance, how the de-registration phenomenon (so frequently discussed in this blog) distorts the data, and supplying opinions of industry leaders apt to tell a story that contradicts the numbers.

Yet the appeal to quarterly spending has become so common, has sunk so deeply into the collective consciousness, that it may be corroding our understanding of how lobbying really functions. Firstly, much as money matters on K St., success is often rooted in the intangibles. Making new contacts, for example, and cultivating existing ones. These things often precede spending both in time and in importance, and they’re difficult, if impossible, to measure.

Secondly, even if spending were as important as it’s typically portrayed, it doesn’t follow that it’s best divided into neat three-month and one-year increments, as it is now by virtue of disclosure requirements. Some issues take years to appear on the legislative calendar–it’d be ludicrous to claim that everything is on the same timetable. In fact, the only thing that’s more ludicrous is to assume this is the case, which is precisely the current problem.

Finally, a lobbyists’ success in Washington is strictly bounded by the political environment in which he works. To get something through committee may be a small victory one year and a large one the next. By definition, a “do-nothing Congress” is the sort of setup that renders doing anything a grand success. So, to impose an overworked phrase on the reader, “it’s all relative”–especially in Washington.

Much of this is common knowledge within the beltway. Yet even reminding oneself of what one already knows can be a useful defense against lazy thinking, especially that which tends to overemphasizes the importance of something.  And if anything at all tends to be overemphasized by the coterie of reporters covering Washington lobbying (great as they are), it’s the importance of lobbying expenditures.  They just don’t matter that much.

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