The Evolving Revolving Door Between Congress and the Lobbying Industry

This piece, written by Adam B. Lerner, covers Michael E. Shepherd and Hye Young You’s new article, Exit Strategy: Career Concerns and Revolving Doors in Congress.

The US Congress’ approval ratings have been at historic lows in recent years and a frequent public complaint is the influence of lobbyists on lawmakers’ decisions. But how exactly do lobbyists extend their tentacles through the Capitol and who’s responsible for ushering them in?

In a recent paper for the American Political Science Review, Michael E. Shepherd and Hye Young You demonstrate that congressional staffers’ post-government career concerns are a significant influence on their behaviours while they are still serving in government.

The authors argue that potential jobs at lobbying firms motivate staffers to more forcefully advocate for policy change during their government careers. By showcasing their legislative skills and helping pass legislation, staffers demonstrate to prospective employers their knowledge and influence over policymaking, making them seem like more attractive potential employees.

Though it may surprise the general public to hear of congressional staffers’ significant role in policymaking, academic literature has long argued that members of Congress’ increased workloads, decreased staff numbers, and focus on fundraising have led them to delegate more policymaking responsibilities to their staff. As these staffers’ importance in the policymaking process has increased, lobbying firms have taken note, enhancing recruitment efforts and increasing salaries to attract Congressional staff. This relationship is often criticized by pundits as further evidence of a multi-faceted ‘revolving door’ between Congress and the lobbying world that skews policymaking for moneyed interests.

Yet, despite public outcry over this revolving door, academics do not yet fully understand all of the mechanisms via which it operates. While some scholarship has examined its impacts on elected members of Congress, as well as regulators in the Executive Branch, far less has examined the role of congressional staffers.

To demonstrate the importance of congressional staffers in this revolving door, Shepherd and You built a dataset of every person to work for a member of congress or congressional committee from 2001-2014, identifying 4,520 among them who left government to work in lobbying. By analyzing this data alongside measures of members’ effectiveness and the issues addressed through legislation, the authors demonstrate that employing a future lobbyist is associated with significantly higher legislative productivity. By ruling out alternative explanations, Shepherd and You persuasively demonstrate that this effect stems from staffers showcasing their legislative skills to potential future employers.

The comprehensiveness of Shepherd and You’s data further allows them to specify the role congressional staffers play in this process. They find that employing a future lobbyist also shapes the issue areas on which members of Congress legislate, leading them to dedicate more attention to bills on health, the environment and commerce—three issue areas of high importance to the lobbying industry. Further, they find that congressional staffers who later become lobbyists grant lobbyists greater access to their offices, indicating that they may be building connections for later employment during their tenures in government. And these effects only increase during staffers’ final years in government.

As an isolated example of this phenomenon, the authors refer to Representative John Carter, a Texas Republican who has served in the US House of Representatives since 2003. From 2003 to 2005, Carter employed four staffers who went on to become lobbyists for clients in the health, energy and commerce sectors, whereas from 2005 to 2007 he employed only two. Though Carter’s committee positions changed little during this period, his legislative effectiveness score dropped significantly and the number of bills he sponsored dropped from seven to four. The authors argue this may be attributable to his staffers’ work from 2003-2005 showcasing their abilities to lobbying firms and potential clients.

Shepherd and You’s analysis provides compelling insight into an important way in which the revolving door between Congress and the lobbying industry functions. They show that lobbying firms reward Congressional staffers with jobs due to their presumed legislative skill and that Congressional staffers interested in becoming lobbyists are keenly aware of opportunities in lobbying. But while these findings show that the lobbying industry’s influence may prove beneficial for the public by motivating staffers to be more effective, they also raise concerns about the extent of lobbyists’ ability to shape policymaking via staffers. Because they are not held accountable to the public via elections, staffers’ role in promoting special interests’ preferred legislation could be a significant issue for American democracy.

This article’s findings are of utmost importance for those interested in controlling the lobbying industry’s impact on policymaking and congressional capacity. As lobbying firms have expanded in recent decades, they have found new avenues to exert their influence on policymaking. As Shepherd and You demonstrate, the allure of lucrative post-government jobs on staffers is a particularly potent one.

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