I spent some time this morning reading Hall and Deardorff’s 2006 APSR article “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy,” because Larry Lessig cited it in his talk on institutional corruption. I had looked at this a while ago, but somehow reading it again I saw it as newly significant.
The basic idea is that most lobbying is a subsidy to legislators; lobbyists essentially act as “adjunct staff” who increase the productivity of legislators who already agree with them. This contrasts with the more common view of lobbying as bribery or persuasion. The subsidy view fits better with the fact that most lobbying is directed at legislators who are already on board — influential, committed advocates of a particular position. The bribery and persuasion models would predict instead that lobbying attention would go to legislators who are on the fence on something; Hall and Deardorff recognize that this kind of lobbying does happen in certain circumstances, but assert that their subsidy view accounts for more of the lobbying we see.
Their account falls short in at least two key ways. First, it doesn’t account for a major component of lobbying expenditure which is, as I understand it, the brokerage of campaign contributions. This is what Abramoff was doing, and he is certainly not alone: a certain class of lobbyist gets paid by interest groups to help that group place its campaign contributions such that they will get favorable policy. Certainly this does not fall under Hall and Deardorff’s explanation, and I wondered what amount of lobbying wouldn’t.
Second, I think it gives the false impression that the only dimension on which lobbying-as-bribery could act would be roll call voting. Hall and Deardorff argue that the subsidy view explains why the NRA might lobby a strong NRA supporter in Congress: that NRA supporter has other priorities and limited resources, and will get more done on gun rights if the NRA helps him. But the influence/bribery account could be applied here as well: the NRA would certainly try to pile cash on a legislator who supports gun rights generally in order to convince him to focus on gun rights instead of abortion, or even to sponsor a bill on assault rifles rather than just concealed handguns. It could be either a subsidy or a bribe.
I think what’s missing is empirical work to look at what lobbyists are actually doing. How much of what they are paid to do would qualify as constructive in some way, and how much would be bribery or the placement of campaign contributions? In other words, I am willing to accept that lobbyists are “adjunct staff” as Hall and Deardorff claim, but are they adjunct legislative assistants or adjust fundraisers?