How does lobbying actually work?
Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth apologized yesterday after news broke about the company’s now-canceled plan to host a series of sponsored dinners that would have offered lobbyists and association executives off-the-record access to Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper’s editorial staff.
The sponsorships, advertised as costing between $25,000 and $250,000, had generated waves of criticism. “If it’s ugly for a Washington Post reporter to lobby for lobbyists,” Slate‘s Jack Shafer, for one, argued, “it’s doubly ugly for the publisher to do the same.” Even if dinners had taken place, though, the lobbying they might have facilitated would have stood a high chance of failing.
As the authors of Lobbying and Policy Change point out, sixty percent of recent lobbying campaigns failed to change policy despite millions of dollars spent trying. After examining nearly one hundred issues, the authors found that resources explained less than five percent of the difference between successful and unsuccessful lobbying efforts.
But that doesn’t mean, of course, that lobbies don’t have any impact at all. When advocates for a given issue do finally succeed, the authors found, policy tends to change significantly—which corresponds with the argument coauthor Frank Baumgartner made with Bryan Jones in their classic Agendas and Instability in American Politics. In the newly updated second edition, Baumgartner and Jones take the long view of several issues—including nuclear energy, urban affairs, smoking, and auto safety—to demonstrate that bursts of rapid, unpredictable policy change punctuate the patterns of stability more frequently associated with government.