All the Senator’s Men

Over two dozen former aides to Senator Max Baucus are now tax lobbyists in Washington, D.C., Ezra Klein reports.  This is significant because Senator Baucus is Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and any reform of the tax code will go through him.  This makes those with Baucus’s ear in high demand.  Access to politicians isthe key to successful lobbying, and personal relationships are far more effective in this regard than campaign contributions.  Notes Klein:

the point of hiring Baucus’s former aides isn’t that they can seamlessly insert any language they want into the final legislation. It’s that they have a direct line to Baucus, and to the people around Baucus, and that gives them a huge advantage. The fact is that human beings are more likely to find arguments convincing when they’re coming from friends rather than strangers or enemies.

That’s the key to most of the lobbying in Washington. It’s not about leveraging bribes so much as it’s about leveraging relationships — and that makes it harder to stamp out.

Klein seems to recognize that campaign finance reform does little to counter this effect, as the relationships between lobbyists and political figures are far more important than the cash.  But it’s worse than that, because traditional campaign finance regulation can actually make things worse.  Such regulations can actually increase  the relative influence of former legislative staffers and, as a consequence, further tilt the playing field in favor of large, established political interests by limiting other sources of money.

Because campaign funds must be raised in such small increments, it takes politicians far more time — more receptions, more phone calls, more meetings — to raise the amount of money necessary to mount a campaign.   Thus there’s less time to study issues, listen to constituents, meet with the less connected, and build new relationships with other elected officials (especially those across the aisle).  This makes established relationships that much more valuable.  Former staffers are a known quantity and — with time at a premium — the ability of lobbyists to provide ready-made research, talking points, and legislative language is more valuable to the elected official.

Limiting lobbyist influence is particularly difficult because, among other things, its constitutionally protected.  The  First Amendment protects the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Laws that seek to close the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street can only do so much.  The law may prohibit a former staffer from lobbying on a particular issue for a given amount of time, but it doesn’t prohibit all contact, and is making an introduction or vouching for someone else really lobbying?

If there are limits to how much lobbying can be controlled, the question then becomes whether lobbyist influence can be counter-balanced by other forces — and here’s where campaign finance regulation comes in again.  It’s  difficult enough to compete directly with a Senator’s former staffers for the Senator’s attention and allegiance — but even more so if other avenues of political influence are cut off.  Why consider what another interest or citizen group has to say if there’s no consequence from ignoring them?  The harder it is for outside groups to present their views to the public or support challengers, the less an incumbent politician needs to consider such concerns.  Shut out competing voices, and status quo interests are that much more secure.