The best lobbyists are trusted experts and allies in the elected official’s policy efforts. The best lobbyists, in political science terms, offer legislative subsidies to elected officials. They provide the support on which Congressional staff, Members of Congress, and ultimately the American people, rely. This is in part because legislation about complex issues requires specialized knowledge that lobbyists tend to have, and in part because Congressional staff are increasingly asked to do more and are being paid less to do it.
Often lobbyists write our laws because they have industry expertise that elected officials and their staffs do not have, and often because elected officials and their staffs do not have the time to do the work themselves. Laws are complicated, and often tackle complicated subjects (such as the patent system or standards for medical devices).
Congressional staff members are sometimes experts in their fields, but the amount one can know and keep up with is limited. And when staff attention is diverted to responding to letters from constituents, meeting with advocates, giving tours, tracking a dizzying array of issues, there is even less time to gain or maintain expertise. Staff work hard, are often very smart, and almost always mean well – people come to Washington to make this country a better place – no one comes here to get rich or famous, there are far more efficient ways to do that than toiling away in the attic of the Cannon building. Congressional staff (especially in the House of Representatives) often share cramped offices, get paid relatively little, and work long hours for people who often have big egos. They share apartments and houses and rely on receptions for meals, and in recent years they have seen their pay cut and workload increased.
When confronted with a new issue staff try to ask good, tough questions about the legislation, learn what the Congressman’s voters do or may think about the issue, try to figure out how the proposals could help or hurt people the Congressman represents, and try to ensure the ideas align with the Congressman’s values. But Congressional staffers cannot possibly be as expert on all the details as those paid only to be experts on the ideas being discussed are. Dollars to doughnuts you’ve never replaced a spleen (you may have, but if so you’ve probably not also rebuilt an engine); you go to a doctor (or a mechanic), ask what you think are good questions, and hope for the best. These young men and women do what any smart person would do when they want to know about spleens or engines: they ask for help from experts. They turn to people who have worked on Capitol Hill and know what goes into successful legislation, people who have years of expertise on a topic, and people who can provide sound arguments for both the Congressman and the public on the issue at hand. To steal a line, Congress outsources its thinking.
The smartest, most committed, policy experts who want to advise members of Congress often can’t afford to work in Congress. So they go work for an organization that focuses only on the issue about which the smart person cares, an organization that pays them enough to live in the most expensive city in America. These smart young men and women do what they came to Washington to do – work to advance causes about which they care and to advise Congress on the best courses of action. They just don’t get paid by taxpayers to do it.