The common thread is the power of lobbyists. Lots of folks think the source of lobbyists’ power and influence is money, but that’s only part of the story.
The main source of their power is time. Lawmakers, like all people, only have so much time in the day, so they have to prioritize. Maybe your goal in public service is to improve education, or maybe it’s environmental protection, or whatever else you may be interested in. Making headway on those issues is going to take up a lot of your time, and you’re not going to have a lot of time left to learn about other stuff like pension reform, or payday lending, or criminal justice policy, or transportation, etc.
The problem is, you still have to vote on all those issues, even if they aren’t really your priority area. That’s where lobbyists come in. Lobbying works by controlling information. It is basically a legislative subsidy. Lawmakers rely on lobbyists for policy analysis and education about the issues, especially issues that aren’t among their top priorities.
The Centives blog at Lehigh University explained this well:
•If lobbyists really worked the way we thought they did then you would expect that they would spend their time trying to ‘bribe’ those who disagree with them. But this isn’t the case. Lobbyists actually concentrate on those who already agree with them – people who are already likely to vote in their favour.
•In fact despite extensive statistical analysis, it has been difficult to find evidence for systematic vote buying.
•In a sophisticated, bureaucratically complicated legislative arena, lobbyists are actually professionals who are intelligent experts that understand the complexities of the situation. They don’t tell legislators what to do, rather, they help legislators achieve what they already want to achieve.
•But this does not mean that the practice is ethical. While lobbyists aren’t buying votes they are helping to set the agenda. Only certain issues receive the guidance provided by lobbyists, causing other issues to be left by the way-side.
The lobbying-as-information-subsidy problem is already bad in the current full-time legislature. Can you imagine how much worse it would get in a part-time legislature where politicians have even less time, and even fewer staff, to gather non-partisan information on the issues they vote on?
Switching to a part-time legislature is a recipe for total domination of the agenda by lobbyists, and total capture of lawmakers by special interests.
This is also the issue we have to be thinking about when we’re talking about reforming legislator pay and per-diems.
In the comments of Jake’s post on per-diems there were some calls to reduce state legislators’ pay, which sounds like great politics, until you consider what would probably happen if we did it.
One likely outcome would be more independently wealthy folks running for office who don’t really need the salary at all – a pretty sucky outcome from a liberal perspective.
Another likely outcome is that legislators would respond to lower base pay by topping up their consumption with more lobbyist-funded meals, junkets, and other fun private benefits. See how responsive your state Senator is on the issues you care about when he’s eating three meals a day at industry-funded dinners, banquets, fundraisers, etc.
My view is that the state lawmaker pay should be fairly competitive with other professional services, and should fully cover what it costs to do the job, which includes travel between Harrisburg and the districts. Politicians definitely should pay for their meals out of their base pay, and shouldn’t be allowed to accept private consumption goods from lobbyists like sporting event tickets, free food and booze, etc.
Deprofessionalizing public policymaking is a great “fusion” issue for conservatives, which is why we need to push back hard on it. There’s something to like here for the downscale and the upscale elements of the Republican political coalition. Stuff like making the legislature part-time, cutting their staff and their pay is red meat for the anti-intellectual base. The right benefits from calling into doubt the possibility of expertise in public policy. Can’t any businessman just waltz in there, apply a little common-sense business magic and fix everything?
For the upscale element of the Republican political coalition, the upshot of deprofessionalizing public policymaking is the nightmare scenario I explained above where lawmakers have even less time to learn about the issues, and industry lobbyists have even tighter control over the flow of policy information.