By Thomas B. Edsall
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.
Jan. 10, 2019
Speaker Nancy Pelosi after a group photo with House democratic women in front of the Capitol on Jan. 4, 2018.
Erin Schaff for The New York Times
“Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the idealistic class of 64 Democratic House freshmen are armed with a reform agenda.
This includes H.R. 1, a 571-page bill that addresses voting rights, corruption, gerrymandering and campaign finance reform as well as the creation of a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis — a first step toward a “Green New Deal.”
Proponents of this ambitious project face a determined adversary, however — the top ranks of the interest group establishment, skilled in co-opting liberal members of Congress and converting initiatives to square with the interests of corporate America.
The upper stratum of the Washington lobbying community often exercises de facto veto power over the legislative process, dominating congressional policymaking, funneling campaign money to both parties and offering lucrative employment to retiring and defeated members of the House and Senate.
Lobbyists exercise this power across the course of a member’s career. “Whoever is elected is immediately met with a growing lobbying onslaught by the same big players,” write Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State and Tim LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University, who have contributed a chapter to “Can America Govern Itself?” a book edited by Francis Lee and Nolan McCarty that is coming out in June.
Within the federal lobbying community — a $3.37 billion industry in 2017 — Drutman, Grossmann and LaPira write
a limited number of organizations at the very top of the resource distribution have escalated their political investments in ways that increasingly distinguish them from the rest of the pack.
This population of groups at the top of the distribution is becoming increasingly stable over the last two decades. This group of top organizations — which we call the top tier — is positioning itself as a distinct class.
The authors argue that the first tier lobbying organizations
are analogous to the current generation of very wealthy families who now pay for every conceivable tutor so that their children can be advantaged in applying to elite prep schools and colleges, which are now more and more essential to getting ahead in our increasingly economically stratified society. In both circumstances, financial resources and social connections build up over time, reinforcing stratification. Money does not guarantee outcomes. But it helps reinforce inequalities by widening the gap between the very top and everyone else.
The ability of this elite constituency to meet politicians’ demands for campaign contributions and other resources, the authors argue, has allowed Congress to ignore traditional “populist concerns regarding dominant economic interests” as members of the House and Senate “continue their high-dollar fund-raisers and constant meetings with lobbyists.””