It’s Common For Lobbyists To Write Bills For Congress. Here’s Why

Listen Now
AP Photo/File
The rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
Photo:Thompson Divide 2
Rep. Scott Tipton's proposal seeks to settle disputes about oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide region of Colorado.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, released a draft bill last month addressing drilling in the environmentally-sensitive Thompson Divide region on the Western Slope. The bill raised eyebrows because it was largely penned by an oil company, SG Interests, that has leases in the area, and is also a top donor to Tipton's campaigns.

Experts say that it's common for industry representatives, lobbyists and other interest groups to draft legislation to be introduced by members of Congress from both political parties. Lee Drutman, adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, wrote an article, "Why Congress Relies on Lobbyists Instead of Thinking For Itself" in The Atlantic magazine. He spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. Read a transcript of the conversation below:

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Who is writing the laws in this country -- elected officials or lobbyists? That's the question raised last month when Republican Congressman Scott Tipton from Colorado's 3rd District released a draft bill that was largely written by an oil company, one that's also his largest donor. It turns out this is not uncommon. Lee Drutman is adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic titled “Why Congress Relies on Lobbyists Instead of Thinking for Itself.” And Lee, welcome to the program.

Lee Drutman: It's good to be with you, Ryan. 

Warner: Congressman Tipton's bill to allow oil and gas companies with leases in the environmentally-sensitive Thompson Divide area and then to trade them for plots elsewhere in Colorado was drafted by the primary oil company involved. I gather this does not surprise you.

Drutman: It does not surprise me at all. This is what happens all the time in Congress, that lawmakers have small staffs. There's a lot of things for them to do, and when a lobbyist comes along and says, hey, we've got a great idea for legislation and, by the way, we're happy to draft the bill for you. A staffer, who's, you know, typically overworked, underpaid, and probably in their twenties says, oh, great, well, please, by all means, help us out. And the lawmaker says, sure, well, this is something I can introduce and then take credit for. So, great, win-win. Well, at least from their perspective. Now, I guess, the concern is that, well, you know, are these folks actually thinking through these issues? Are they getting, are they thinking through what's best for their constituents or are they just doing what's easiest?

Warner: Now, listen, Congressman Tipton has said, you have to start somewhere. You know, could you argue that it's efficient? I mean, it's…

Drutman: Well, it is efficient, just to, you know, why not just outsource it to the lobbyists, right? I mean, very efficient. It'd save taxpayers money, right? You know, you don't have to pay for congressional staff. You can just let the lobbyists and industry write the bills. Certainly, it's efficient, and, yeah, certainly you want to start somewhere, which is not to say that just because industry has an idea that we should dismiss it as out of hand. But what happens too often is that there's not input on all sides and there's not resources on all sides of an issue, so a lobbyist for industry comes along, says, here we've got a great idea or a bill, and we'll do it for you. And, you know, if anybody had an objection, surely they'd come along. Well, here you have a bill written by industry.

Warner: Representative Tipton is a Republican, but it is fair to say that this happens on both sides of the aisle, correct?

Drutman: Certainly it happens. I mean, look, Congress has the, actually fewer staff in key policymaking positions now than in 1980 and more and more congressional offices are run by bright and energetic 25 year olds, who, you know, may work very hard, but they don't have a lot of experience. They don't have a lot of policy expertise. They're covering an incredible range of topics. The members themselves are spending an incredible share of their time in fundraising activities, and so nobody has time to pay attention to the policy. And what happens is that the policymaking, the writing of the bills, the developing of the talking points, the just sort of general understanding of the issues gets outsourced to the folks who are there to help out the offices and most of those folks are lobbyists. Most of those lobbyists are representing industry, and that's Congress in 2016.

Warner: Now, Lee, what we've pointed out is that the company that helped write this language is also a donor to the Congressman in question. Is that unusual?

Drutman: No, I don't think that's unusual either. Look, to run for office now requires millions of dollars and so, a lot of interested parties become donors. I mean, that's like buying a ticket to the party, right? You know, buy a ticket to the main event. If you want to be taken seriously by a congressional office, you want to make sure that you've contributed as one lobbyist has put it, to show respect for the process, right? If you don't, if you haven't made a donation, other people will get in the door first.

Warner: But can you point specifically to money and outcome? That is, you know, this amount of money led to this specific outcome?

Drutman: No. No, I mean, it's very hard to show, to show those patterns, because, look, there are a lot of people who spend a lot of money on campaign contributions and don't get anything. Often your campaign contributions are oriented towards keeping stuff off the agenda. I mean, mostly, the way I think about campaign contributions is they play kind of a gatekeeper effect, right? If you were running for office, you need to raise a lot of money from a lot of very rich people and industry people, so that's going to shape the types of people who run for office, and it's going to shape the way that candidates talk and prioritize issues. And that's where most of the effect of campaign finance is happening is determining who runs for office and how they think about the issues. And then, once you get into office, there's a lot of things that you could do, but getting a bill passed, getting a bill even drafted takes a lot of work. So you're going to work on the issues where you can get outside support. Now, again, most lobbying is corporate lobbying, so most of the support that you're going to get to draft and build co-sponsorship and build momentum for legislation is going to come from outside, and it's going to come from industry lobbyists. That is how policymaking works in Washington now, unfortunately.

Warner: And what's the ratio these days between lobbyists and members of Congress?

Drutman: Well, there are about 12,000 registered lobbyists, and that is probably a small number, the people who work in the lobbying industry, as compared to 535 members of Congress. Another way to think about it is that the amount of money that Congress spends on staff for the House and the Senate is about $2 billion and the amount of money in reported lobbying is about $3.2 billion. So, there's a lot more resources and manpower going into lobbying. And even if we took, you know, the entire manpower of the House and the Senate, you know, the House has about 9,000 employees working for it. The Senate has about 6,000 employees. So, that's slightly more than the number of registered lobbyists, but, again, that, there's a lot more folks working in the sort of lobbying and policy and PR and advocacy world than show up as registered lobbyists. We just don't know, but a good guess would be double or triple that, that number of registered lobbyists.

Warner: You've got the think tanks, as well? I mean, is the New America Foundation a part of the problem here?

Drutman: Well, I'd like to think that we're part of the solution. But, look, I, and you can go on the website of New American and you can look and see who we're getting money from. So, we're transparent about that. A lot of think tanks don't tell you where they're getting money from, so if you want to, anybody can go and say, okay, well, you know, this is, these are the foundations or the companies that paid for this research, so maybe we should discount it a little bit if, you know, or maybe we should at least approach it with a skeptical eye. A lot of think tanks don't do that. They take money from all kinds of corporate and private donors and they don't tell you where they're getting their money from and who funded research, and that is a way in which a lot of private companies and donors get to the patina of legitimacy on policy ideas that then they can bring forward. But, you know, I'd like to think that, and, I mean, we are transparent. We are mostly funded by foundations and, but it's a conversation, right? I mean, there are a lot of different ideas about the directions in which policy should move, and the best, I think, we can hope for is that there are good arguments on different sides and it's up to the elected officials and their staff to kind of wade through the arguments, bring their own judgment, think about what's best for their constituents.

Warner: I want to go back to this idea that they are under-resourced, because that seems to be something that you are pointing out and why it is not uncommon for legislation to be drafted by outside parties. So, you point out that two government groups meant to support lawmakers, the Government Accountability Office, the GAO, and the Congressional Research Service, employ 20 percent fewer staffers than they did in 1979.

Drutman: Yeah.

Warner: And you say that's largely the work of former Speaker of the House and Georgia Congressman, Newt Gingrich. Can you explain that?

Drutman: So, Newt Gingrich came to power in 1995 as Speaker and he made tremendous cuts to the legislative support organizations. He made tremendous cuts to committee staffing. And, you know, and he centralized a lot of power in the speakership in Congress. Now, and Congress has really never recovered from those cuts. Now that was, you know, I'm not inside his head at the time, but it may have partially been a political move to show that government was cutting resources, its own spending. It may have partially been a political move because he thought there were a lot of liberals in these positions, as Democrats had previously controlled Congress for 40 years, so he was doing a bit of housecleaning. And it may have also been that he wanted to signal, and just make it easier for the lobbyists, particularly business lobbyists, who he wanted to build a strong alliance with that they could basically have the run of the lot and they could instruct him and his colleagues on how to legislate.

Warner: What would you say if you could point to a solution or two and address this issue of outside parties have such a voice in the writing of legislation?

Drutman: Well, I think it's pretty simple, is that we just spend a little bit more money on giving Congress the resources to hire and retain professional staff. All right, I mean, it actually, I don't think it would cost a ton of money to give the offices the resources, to have a few more policy staff, and particularly give the committees, to have a few more policy staff to keep them around a long time, to invest in the Congressional Research Service and in GAO and the Congressional Budget Office, right? I mean, the question, ultimately, is who's going to write the bills? Policy has become more complex. There's a lot of stuff that Congress is dealing with, and, you know, do we want lobbyists writing the bills who are just accountable to their corporate clients mostly? Or, do we want publicly paid staff who have a responsibility and an inclination to be more independent-minded and to think more broadly about what's good for the country as a whole. Now…

Warner: Lee, I'm so sorry, we're going to have to stop you there. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

Drutman: It's my pleasure.

Warner: Lee Drutman, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins. He's also author of The Business of America is Lobbying. Still ahead, Lakeside Amusement Park is open for the season; how the family-owned attraction has managed to survive. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.