Review of “The Lobbyists: How Influence Peddlers Get Their Way in Washington” by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

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Introduction

Lobbying is a facet of American political life that I have grown increasingly interested in over the past few years. One on hand, many on the right and left decry it as corrupt influence-peddling that leads politicians to make decisions in the interest of garnering increased campaign donations rather than to help their constituents. The other side, represented by books like The Third House and Lobbyists at Work, claims that lobbying is an honorable profession, endorsed by James Madison in The Federalist Papers, which helps legislators make fully informed decisions that rely on the advice of outside experts.

The truth, as you might guess, is somewhere in between. The Lobbyists by Jeffrey Birnbaum shows that truth; among the vast armies of lobbyists and overworked legislative teams on Capitol Hill, some people are corrupt and some are honorable, some just want to make a quick buck and others deeply care about the issues at stake and want to make informed decisions.

The Lobbyists is a story of a select cadre of men and women- the lobbyists and legislators that partnered together during the 101st Congress (1989-90) to try to cut taxes. It tells the story of how and why they do their jobs.


Summary Lobbyists at Work by Jeffrey Birnbaum

Lobbyists at Work is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. In it, Birnbaum uses his personal experience with a number of lobbyists to tell the tale of how they worked with legislators on both sides of the isle to create tax breaks and cut the capital gains tax.

Whether a tax break for R&D spending, lunch and drink expenses (the infamous three-martini lunch tax break), or direct cuts to the federal capital gains tax, lobbyists were there to fight for it.

HW Bush had promised “no new taxes,” but he also needed to decrease the ever-rising deficit. Corporations and interest groups saw where that was headed- examinations of the minutiae as legislators and their staffs tried to increase revenue while not technically raising taxes. Their impression was that such an examination of the tax code and the loopholes in it would mean increased taxes for them, in some cases substantial.

To counteract such an unwelcome outcome, they did the only thing they could- hired lobbyists and hoped for the best.

That is where The Lobbyists begins- a high stakes legislative session that could mean, for America’s biggest corporations, either a slight decrease in taxes, a maintenance of the mostly acceptable status quo, or a dramatic increase in taxes as loopholes were closed.

The book charts the yearlong fight over the tax bill, telling the dramatic tale of how modern lobbyists do their job and exert influence on lawmakers.

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The general impression Birnbaum gives is that lobbyists are largely no longer the cigar-chomping, bourbon-swilling, big shots that we imagine. No one has every legislator on a string and is able to influence legislation simply by “having a chat” in a smoke-filled room.

Instead, modern lobbyists rely on technology, biased, paid-for studies that present their viewpoint in a positive light, and organized pressure campaigns that draw on calls, letters, and emails from both ordinary constituents and big shot CEOs.

Interest groups organize and vocalize their opinions, special interests use campaign donations and pressure campaigns to make the full weight of their positions known, and individual companies try to sneak in footnotes or amendments that help them.

The Lobbyists describes all of those tactics in deep detail, mainly through the stories of the few, incredibly powerful and influential lobbyists that it is about. Birnbaum describes how they do their jobs, what tactics they prefer, and just how useful lobbying can be.

The conclusion of the book, which ends with taxes rising (thus leading to the political death of “no new taxes” Bush), was surprising. Lobbying can be somewhat effective, but only at the edges. Despite the constant kowtowing to legislators and lowly staffers, the multitude of impressively-sized campaign and PAC donations, and the vast scope of pressure campaigns organized with modern technology, lobbyists can really only affect legislation at the edges. A few amendments might be snuck in to appease the benefactors of the lobbyists, largely the mega-sized corporations and interest groups that bankroll them, but lobbyists can do very little in reality.

The Lobbyists shows that in fascinating detail. A few of the objectives of the lobbyists made their way into the tax code, namely a one-year extension to the R&D tax break, but the overwhelming majority didn’t. Taxes went up, meaning that corporations had to pay billions more to the federal government.

Other than its effectiveness, the question many people have about it is corruption- just how corrupt is D.C.? We often decry it as a vast cesspool of corruption, but is it really like that?

If you believe what you read in The Lobbyists, then yes. It is just as corrupt as you imagine. Senators and Congressmen have found ways to squeeze ever-larger campaign and PAC donations out of lobbying firms, helping them stay in office. Even though they don’t accede to the lobbyists’ demands very frequently, they are able to draw cash out of them and receive countless gifts and free lunches. Even some of the lowly staffers quoted in the book claim they never had to pay for lunch or dinner- lobbyists would foot the bill to build goodwill.

But that’s not all. Despite laws meant to stop legislators from accepting direct payments from lobbyists, those politicians of low character are always able to find a way to do so. The most prominent example is book sales- interest groups and lobbying firms that want to curry favor with legislators but their books, thus enriching the lawmakers and giving lobbyists an “in.” The other “strategy” is to give the legislator’s spouse or family members a prestigious and high-paying position that requires very little work, often as an executive at a non-profit, and thus indirectly enrich the lawmaker.

The sad truth is that, in D.C., the level of corruption is as disgusting as it is pervasive.

congress is a hall of corruption in the lobbyists
Congress: A Hallowed Hall of Corruption


My Take on The Lobbyists by Jeffrey Birnbaum

I thought The Lobbyists was an excellent book. Birnbaum doesn’t judge or editorialize when telling the stories that make the book up, he just gives the facts.

Furthermore, by compiling them in a narrative format, rather than as a series of interviews or as information making up chapters that break up each aspect of lobbying, he is able to hold the reader’s attention in a way that very few non-fiction books about such subjects do.

Because of its narrative format, The Lobbyists is eminently readable, which is important for a book about as contentious a subject as lobbying. Americans want to know how corrupt their legislators are and how swayed they are by lobbyists. Birnbaum shows that most are corrupt, but also that they are not particularly swayed by lobbyists, at least when it comes to big issues. Money can only buy so much when dealing with self-important and incredibly powerful people.

Additionally, Birnbaum’s work is excellent in that is about a specific topic- lobbying about taxes during the 101st Congress. Were it about a broader subject, such as all lobbying at the federal level during that Congress, or lobbying during that general time period, the narrative format would not be as successful. Too many stories would have to be told to provide both a holistic view of the subject and the deep detail necessary to make the book useful. Birnbaum’s laser-like focus on the book’s core subject makes it useful and interesting.

Finally, The Lobbyists has no obvious faults. Birnbaum remains politically neutral throughout it, blaming neither Republicans nor Democrats for the corruption in Washington. He doesn’t editorialize; instead, he simply presents the facts. It is well-written and well-organized, leaving nothing relevant out. And, even if you’re not interested in lobbying, the way the book is structured as a story rather than a series of facts makes it interesting and quite readable.


Conclusion

So, if you want to learn more about how the sausage is made in D.C., then you need to read The Lobbyists. It will teach you how lobbyists do their job, in what situations they can be effective, and just how corrupt the average legislator is. They might not accept cash payments for services rendered (although some do), but they have found ways to enrich themselves at the public’s expense. Hence why legislators making ~$100,000 a year can have vast fortunes worth tens of millions.

More Americans need to learn about that corruption. Books like The Lobbyists will teach them about it.

By: Gen Z Conservative



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