Studying the Everyday Lives of Professional Federal Lobbyists

Maggie McKinley

One of the primary research areas addressed by the Edmond J. Safra Lab’s project on Institutional Corruption focuses on how the loss of public trust in an institution caused by a belief that the institution is corrupt serves to weaken the functioning of that institution.1


The focus of the Lab is incredibly timely, as recent Gallup polls have found that public trust in many of our nation’s most fundamental institutions—including “the medical system” and “public schools”—has been declining steadily.2  My cohort of Fellows study this loss of trust in a broad range of contexts: from medical research to academic research to the various professions.  

The loss in public trust, however, has been nowhere more marked than in the institution of Congress; an institution that, for the last three years, Gallup has ranked dead last for public trust out of sixteen institutions—behind banks, big business, and HMOs.3  In a July 2012 survey, Americans ranked reduction in government corruption as the number two issue for the next president to prioritize in 2013—ahead of lowering the budget deficit and confronting terrorism.4  This growing concern over corruption and increased loss of public trust has paralleled a heightened public fervor over the engagement of lobbyists in the legislative process.  Not only do lobbyists rank lower than lawyers and used-car salesmen in honesty and ethical standards,5 seven out of ten Americans feel strongly that lobbyists have too much power—topping the list over major corporations, banks, and the federal government.6  Given the dependence of this institution on public support and participation in order to function, this severe of a negative public perception, even a perception based on misconception or stereotype, will doubtless have real consequences for the institution over time.

However, despite this fervent and resolute public outcry deploring the corruption of our federal government as aided and abetted by “lobbyists,” two years ago when I began to develop a research study around this question, I encountered a puzzle: there exists little to no empirical data on the everyday practices of federal lobbyists—professional or otherwise—and no ethnographic research on the everyday lives and community composition of this profession.7  Moreover, there appeared to be a broad and unexplored assumption in the general public, as well as in the academy, that the definition of who was a “lobbyist” excluded professionals who advocated on behalf of progressive causes—even those registered as lobbyists—and did not include amateur citizen advocacy.

For instance, the term “lobbyist” is readily deployed to describe the Abramoffs of the world, but many are shocked to learn that some of the first federal lobbyists were in fact Quakers—who, on the first day of our newly-minted Congress, set up offices in a hotel across the street from Congress Hall in Philadelphia in order to lobby for the abolishment of slavery.8  It is equally a surprise that the community of lobbyists includes great historical figures such as Dorothy Detzer—a twenty year peace advocate whom The New York Times called “the Most Famous Woman Lobbyist”9—and modern-day heroes like Chai Feldblum who led ACLU efforts to draft and pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.10  Further, discussions of the so-called “revolving door” focus on for-profit representation and neglect the possible added value of cause lawyers moving between state employment and the causes that they serve.11

Belying this definitional ambiguity, is the fact that the term has steep professional consequences for anyone branded as a lobbyist—including heavy disclosure requirements, ethics restrictions, formal and informal limitations on future employment, and strong social stigma.12  Further belying this ambiguity, is the simple fact that the public appears to stigmatize and distrust something that no one has documented in a rigorous enough fashion to afford an informed opinion on the subject.

From this puzzle the Language of Lobbying Project was born. I designed the study to employ mixed-methods in order to capture what day-to-day life looks like over the course of a calendar year, a session, and a congress for folks employed as professional lobbyists in D.C.  In particular, the study replicates—in modified form—the methods of my most recent research institution, the UCLA Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Center on the Everyday Lives of Families—an interdisciplinary center designed to allow researchers from a broad range of disciplines to work off of the same data set—and combines for each participant: questionnaires, in-depth semi-structured interviews, activity and spatial tracking, and audio-recorded periods of ethnographic observation over the course of a series of work days and professional activities identified as typical by the participant.13

In addition, the study draws upon the field of language socialization developed by Linguistic Anthropologist Elinor Ochs, to incorporate the observation and documentation of a clinical setting where students are trained as professional legislative advocates both in the context of a seminar and through practical work on behalf of real clients.14  The language socialization component of the study is intended to capture those moments when the ideology and practices of the community are laid bare in the course of teaching and correction, and to document how lobbyists are socialized to language and through language to become competent members of the community and profession of federal lobbyists in D.C.  All too often, once we become competent at an area of expertise, it is challenging to articulate what it is we are doing and why; studying a practice in the context where an individual with expertise within the field of legislative advocacy is instructing a more junior member of the community as to the proper procedures of the profession allows for fuller documentation of ideal practices and their motivating ethics, worldviews, and ideologies.      

Finally, once the study was underway this fall, I decided to open participation to a series of short semi-structured interviews with lobbyists who fit a broad range of professional types within the community—e.g., a range of substantive disciplines, in-house legislative affairs, consultants, trade association representatives, multiple political parties, and various types of clientele.  I designed these interviews to glean a topology of the community and to refine the study to capture all of the relevant contextual information for each participant in order to situate them within this community.  

Data collection began two short months ago, and will be underway until mid-August of 2013, with intermittent follow-up research continuing until the end of the 113th Congress.  What this means for my everyday life is that I spend my days observing and recording moments of legislative advocacy in a broad range of settings—from coalition gatherings to pitches on the Hill to meetings with clients and third-party vendors—as well as conducting in-depth interviews with professional lobbyists on their ideal strategies, the composition of their community, and their views on the profession.

Although this study is still in its most nascent stages, I have already begun to draw the contours of the community and the profession, including documenting novel distinctions that could prove important in designing future research.  One such example is the distinction of “access lobbying”—a term which draws fewer than ten relevant hits on Google, yet is ubiquitous throughout the lobbying community—from “substantive or issue lobbying.”  As described by my participants, the everyday practices of an individual lobbyist or lobbying firm will vary based on whether the lobbyist or firm focuses on providing the service of “access”—namely, securing meetings with the right congressional actors—as opposed to providing the service of substantive policy research, drafting, and intelligence.  While the distinction between “access lobbying” and “substantive lobbying” is more of a spectrum than a strict dichotomy—with most lobbyists and firms providing some level of access and some level of substantive service—it follows that any study that does not account for this distinction could end up with skewed findings from a sample that draws too heavily from only one side of the spectrum.  These are the types of distinctions that the Language of Lobbying Project is designed to document.      

From the culmination of these methodologies, the study seeks to capture what it is that lobbyists do every day and to describe in a rigorous and neutral fashion these practices to the academy, as well as the general public.  In particular, it is my hope that greater public awareness of the techniques of legislative engagement and the broad range of professionals in the lobbying community—including advocates who lobby on behalf of the disempowered and voiceless, as well as those who advocate for the health of business and markets—might help to dispel stereotypes and to provide a deeper understanding of the distrust and stigmatization of this profession, legislative engagement more generally, and the damage done to the democratic institution most vulnerable to lack of public participation eroded by a loss of public trust—our Congress.

 

1 See, e.g., LAWRENCE LESSIG, REPUBLIC LOST 404-43 (2011); Piercarlo Valdesolo, et al., Contagious Inferences in Institutional Trust: The Costs of Transparency (under review); see also Dennis Thompson, ETHICS IN CONGRESS: FROM INDIVIDUAL TO INSTITUTIONAL CORRUPTION 1 (1995).
2 Jeffrey M. Jones, Confidence in U.S. Public Schools at a New Low, GALLUP POLITICS (June 20, 2012), http://www.gallup.com/poll/155258/confidence-public-schools-new-low.aspx.
3 Id.
4 Jeffrey M. Jones, Americans Want Next President to Prioritize Jobs, Corruption, GALLUP POLITICS (July 30, 2012), http://www.gallup.com/poll/156347/americans-next-president-prioritize-jobs-corruption.aspx .
5 Jeffrey M. Jones, Record 64% Rate Honesty, Ethics of Members of Congress Low, GALLUP POLITICS (Dec. 12, 2011), http://www.gallup.com/poll/151460/record-rate-honesty-ethics-members-congress-low.aspx.
6 Lydia Saad, Americans Decry Power of Lobbyists, Corporations, Banks, Feds, Gallup Politics (Apr. 12, 2011), http://www.gallup.com/poll/147026/americans-decry-power-lobbyists-corporations-banks-feds.aspx.
7 There are, of course, notable and valuable studies utilizing interview methodologies to document lobbying influence and tactics.  See, e.g., FRANK R. BAUMGARTNER ET AL., LOBBYING AND POLICY CHANGE: WHO WINS, WHO LOSES, AND WHY 1 (2009); ANTHONY J. NOWNES, TOTAL LOBBYING: WHAT LOBBYISTS WANT (AND HOW THEY TRY TO GET IT) 1 (2006).  However, no study to date has utilized mixed-methods to document the language, culture, community, and everyday practice of federal lobbyists.
8 KENNETH R. BOWLING, THE HOUSE & SENATE IN 1790S: PETITIONING, LOBBYING, & INSTITUTIONAL DEVELOPMENT 64-67 (2002).
9 See DOROTHY DETZER, APPOINTMENT ON THE HILL 1 (1948).
10 See Chai Feldblum, The Art of Legislative Lawyering and the Six Circles Theory of Advocacy, 35 MCGEORGE L. REV. 785 (2003).
11 Doug NeJaime, Cause Lawyers Inside the State, 81 FORDHAM LAW REVIEW (forthcoming 2012), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2152501.
12 Eric Lichtblau, Tired of “Tainted” Image, Lobbyists Try Makeover, N.Y. TIMES, May 3, 2012, at A17.
13 See, e.g., Ochs, et al., Video Ethnography and Ethnoarchaeological Tracking, in THE WORK AND FAMILY HANDBOOK 387-410 (M. Pitt Catsouphes, et al., eds. 2006).
14 See, e.g., Elinor Ochs, CULTURE AND LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT: LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND LANGUAGE SOCIALIZATION IN A SAMOAN VILLAGE 1 (1988).

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