Congress and The Influence Industry: Framing The Issue

The most successful lobbying doesn’t tell elected officials what to think. The most successful lobbying tells elected officials what to think about and how to think about it. Successful lobbying isn’t about bags of cash exchanged in underground parking garages or drunken promises extracted in rooms full of hookers. The best lobbying is about agenda setting, priming, and framing.

Last week I argued that Congress outsources its thinking to lobbyists and advocates for good (or at least understandable) reasons – – issues are complex, Congressional staff don’t have the specialized knowledge or the time to keep up on them, and current budgets don’t allow for hiring actual experts on every issue. So unless Congress votes to give itself a lot more money – which isn’t going to happen (that direct mail attack piece writes itself) – then Congress must look to outsiders for additional expertise.

The exchange of such expertise for support in congress has been called a “legislative subsidy.” This subsidy isn’t entirely benign or without effect. The US Chamber of Commerce, PhRMA, the League of Conservation Voters, and the thousands of lobbyists, advocates, public relations professionals, policy analysts, and the rest of us in the influence industry don’t get paid to advance the broad public interest in a fair and unbiased manner. Those of us in the influence industry get paid to influence people.

“In politics, information is not neutral; it creates winners and losers.”
-Bryan Jones and Frank Baumgartner in “The Politics of Attention

Jones and Baumgartner sum up the problem faced by Congressional staff well: “attention matters. And attention is limited.” There are a lot of issues and ideas vying for attention of elected officials and their staffs. And those issues and ideas can be considered in a lot of ways (in political science geek speak, issues are multidimensional).

Even the smartest among us can only pay attention to a handful of things at once, and our views of those things are necessarily limited a well. The best advocates take advantage of this shortage and say “of all the things to which you could pay attention, this one will advance the interests of your boss and will help win the next election; of all the ways to consider the issue, this one makes the most sense.” The advocate will then provide talking points, supporting data, maybe a draft op-ed, set up invitations to talk about the issue to important groups, get that elected official’s constituents to thank him or her online and in the press, and otherwise package good politics around what is presented as good policy.

For example consider health care, specifically how people take care of themselves. One aspect of this is smoking.

First note that you’re now thinking about smoking and thus not housing costs or Iran or climate change or money in politics or privacy or the debt ceiling or human trafficking or our crumbling infrastructure or the countless other important issues facing the nation.

Next, notice that you’re thinking about smoking as a health issue. There are a lot of other ways in which to discuss the growing, selling, and consuming of tobacco: small family farmers who grow tobacco; mom and pop retailers who sell cigarettes; free speech and advertising; individual choice and responsibility; US exports and all the jobs trade promotes; and more.

Now consider the inevitable outcomes of what you’re thinking. Because you’re thinking about public health, and smoking as a health issue, the only question left is how to limit (or eliminate) smoking. But if we were talking about small business or family farms, the question would be how to allow smoking because tobacco creates jobs and protects groups Americans like (farmers and entrepreneurs).

Having gotten the attention of a Congressional staffer by leading with jobs or health, (priming the staffer to consider whatever follows in that context) and having directed that attention along a specific line of thinking, a good lobbyist doesn’t have to tell the staffer what to do, the conclusion about what to do, the legislation, is a foregone conclusion. By defining what issue to which to pay attention, and by defining what the issue is about, the lobbyist has already won.

Good lobbyists are extensions of Congressional staff. But unlike staff they don’t work for the American taxpayer, they work for specific interests with specific priorities and points of view.

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