America’s Lobbying System is Broken — It’s Time we Invest in Fixing our Legislatures

By: Charlotte Hill, NLC Fellow ’11 | Legislators across the country rely on lobbyists for policy expertise — and that’s a real problem

Editors Note: This is the second in a multipart series analyzing the broken state of American lobbying and identifying workable solutions.

Why Are Lobbyists So Powerful?

In this series, I argue that lobbyists have too much influence on American politics. But before I can get to my recommendations for reducing lobbyist influence, it is crucial to understand why lobbyists are so influential in the first place.

The Myth: Lobbyists Bribe Our Politicians

Many Americans assume that lobbyists gain their influence from de facto bribes: job offers, campaign donations, and gifts. It’s an understandable assumption. Lobbyists are often depicted as corrupt political insiders; one popular advocacy reform organization, for instance, has a page on its website titled, “Stop lobbyists from corrupting America.”

Lobbyists are corrupting America’s government,” the page reads.Big loopholes allow lobbyists to use campaign contributions and lucrative job offers to buy political influence for special interests, unions, and corporations.”

Fears of lobbyist corruption were only strengthened by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal of 2005–2006. Abramoff was ultimately sentenced to six years in federal prison for, among other things, conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Advocates are right, to an extent: lobbyists do use private payoffs to influence policy. But these payoffs are not lobbyists’ sole source of influence. “If all it took to prevail was to a buy a few steaks, sponsor a golf trip, or make campaign contributions,” writes legal scholar Nick Allard, “then anyone could do it, and there would be no reason to hire a professional lobbyist to argue your case before lawmakers or to help you navigate through the procedural and political labyrinth.”i

The Truth: Lobbyists Make Themselves Indispensable

The truth is more complex than advocates tend to admit. Lobbyists provide politicians with a wide range of resources — jobs and donations, yes, but also invaluable policy expertise. Lawmakers depend on these resources to get elected and stay in office (and, increasingly often, to find new work outside of government). That dependency leads lawmakers to pass laws that benefit lobbyists and their (typically wealthy) clients.

Resource 1: Policy Expertise

As our legislators write, analyze, and eventually pass laws, we tend to assume that they’re relying on government expertise — either their own, or the expertise of their fellow public servants. But the truth is that most politicians lack the capacity to legislate on their own. Instead, they frequently rely on lobbyists to give them policy information and advice — essentially outsourcing important policy work to the private sector.

Lobbyists serve as de facto policy analysts, communicating regularly with lawmakers and staff about the legislation crossing their desks. Federal lobbyists report that their three most commonly used tactics are contacting Congress personally, testifying in Congress, and contacting executive agency personnel.ii At the state level, more than 9 in 10 lobbyists report meeting personally with state legislators and their staff and with executive agencies, and the vast majority of lobbyists engage in other legislative activities. (In contrast, only 1 in 5 lobbyists report giving gifts to state legislators, and only 3 percent of lobbyists say they provide travel to lawmakers and their staff.)iii

To be fair, lobbyists might have an incentive to underreport how often they use private payoffs to gain influence with legislators. But a recent study by New America’s Lee Drutman and Georgetown’s Daniel Hopkins suggests that interest groups are truly more concerned with the day-to-day development of policy than with shaping election outcomes.

Drutman and Hopkins analyzed more than 250,000 emails sent by upper-level employees at Enron between 1999 and 2002. Only 1 percent of the political emails sent during that time related to elections — “and even within that one percent, there is scant evidence that Enron‘s staffers considered themselves to be buying the support of candidates.”iv

Of course, Enron did make political contributions. But as the study’s authors write, “perhaps its greater resource was its monopoly on policy-relevant information about electricity, natural gas, and communications markets, information that policymakers could not easily obtain elsewhere. The frequency of monitoring, the large number of legislative meetings, and the special attention to members of energy-related committees in Congress suggest support for a view that treats lobbyists as allies of lawmakers and their staffs as well.”v

Not only do lobbyists advise politicians on how to vote, but they increasingly write legislative language itself. More than 9 in 10 state lobbyists report regularly or occasionally helping to draft legislation,vi while 76% of state lobbyists help executive agencies draft regulations, rules, and guidelines.vii At the federal level, lobbyists report that drafting legislation is an important tactic for influencing policy.viii

There are at least three reasons why politicians and their staff lack the capacity to develop and analyze legislation themselves:

First, the legislative branch is underfunded and understaffed. The number of staff members serving state legislatures has declined by more than 4,000 people since 1996 — an 11% decrease.ix The numbers were already dismally low in 1996; at least ten states had fewer than one staff member per lawmaker.x

The same trend occurred in Congress. As the Washington Monthly reports, the Gingrich-led Republican House of 1995 “cut the ‘professional staff’ (the lawyers, economists, and investigators who work for committees rather than individual members) by a third. They reduced the ‘legislative support staff’ (the auditors, analysts, and subject-matter experts at the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and so on) by a third, too, and killed off the Office of Technology Assessment entirely. And they fundamentally dismantled the old committee structure, centralizing power in the House speaker’s office and discouraging members and their staff from performing their own policy research.”

The result was an “outsourcing of policy development [that] strengthened the already-powerful hand of corporate interests in shaping legislation.”xi

Second, the legislative branch has experienced high turnover, leading to a dearth of institutional knowledge. The average tenure of Congressional staff members has declined rapidly in recent years, falling nearly 30% from 1991 to 2001.xii Limited data exists on the average tenure of state legislative staff, but one study of the California Assembly found that one-third of staff members had worked there for less than a year, while only 4 in 10 staff members had worked in the legislature for more than 3 years.xiii

High turnover is a problem for legislators, too. Even before the advent of term limits, the average turnover rate in the lower houses of state legislatures hovered near 30% for the least “professional” states — that is, those with low legislative pay, short sessions, and few staff members and resources.xiv By contrast, the average turnover rate in the private sector is 15.1%.xv

Understandably, term limits have worsened the problem of turnover. Fifteen states currently have term limits in place, making it impossible for qualified legislators to stay in office past their “expiration date.” The junior legislator who take their place have been found to rely significantly more on model legislation from the special-interest group ALEC.xvi

The head of California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has seen firsthand how short legislative tenures make lawmakers more reliant on lobbyist expertise. “While term-limited members are dedicated public servants, we have found that they need more basic information about state programs and finances than did their predecessors-and they need it sooner. In addition, when a policy or budget problem is identified, current legislators need more assistance in identifying the actions that can be taken to address it. As a result, my office’s knowledge of state programs and the details and intricacies of the state budget are more in demand.”xvii

And third, legislation requires greater expertise than ever before. From 1971–1972, the average bill passed by Congress was 3.8 pages. By 2010, the average bill was 19.9 pages — an all-time record.xviii As Thomas Susman of the American Bar Association explains, “Government has become sufficiently complex that, without the information lobbyists bring to legislators, decision making would be — at best — poorly informed.”xix

Legislative staff do not hide the fact that they depend on lobbyist expertise. According to one recent survey, more than two thirds of congressional staffers view lobbyists as partners, collaborators, or educators.xx Lobbying expert Kenneth Gross puts it this way: “The truth of the matter is that legislation in Washington is extraordinarily complex, [and] the staff available to members, both House and Senate is very limited. And the only way that they can really get to the bottom of a lot of complex issues is to rely on lobbyists.”xxi

State legislatures are especially reliant on lobbyist information. “The problem is even more acute at the state level,” write scholars Heather Gerken and Alex Tausanovitch. “Seasoned staffers are fewer and farther between, and informational resources fall considerably below anything that federal agencies or the Congressional Research Service can provide. The problem is particularly serious for states with part-time legislatures and more limited budgets. Lobbyists and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have stepped into this vacuum, resulting in a multimillion dollar industry funded largely by corporate dollars.”xxii

ALEC’s model bills are disproportionately passed in states with low legislator salaries, short sessions, and small staffs. “Business interests can take advantage of low policy capacity in state legislatures, offering private policy resources to legislators,” Columbia Professor Alex Hertel-Fernandez found in a recent study. “By providing pre-written model bills, talking points, and extensive research assistance, businesses can attract support from harried, part-time state officials who are in need of precisely such services.”xxiii

Perhaps the problem is best summed up in a joint report by the National Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife. “Forty-one states have only part-time legislators, and 33 of those have no paid legislative staff,” the report says. “Many state lawmakers are overwhelmed by the hectic, often-frenzied pace of annual sessions.” As a result, model bills and policy analyses developed by interest groups “frequently shape the supposed solutions to a wide range of state problems and issues.”xxiv

Resource 2: Fundraising Support

While lobbyists are constrained by the same individual campaign donation limits as every other American, they can still curry favor with lawmakers by helping them fundraise, either by hosting fundraisers on their behalf or by bundling together other people’s campaign contributions.xxv

Legislators value this fundraising support because elections are increasingly expensive. The typical U.S. Senate campaign costs around $10.5 million, or $14,351 per day,xxvi while candidates for state senate raise an average of $150,000 per campaign.xxvii To raise this money, candidates at both the federal and state level must spend an inordinate amount of time and energy raising money to get elected (and re-elected); federal politicians, for instance, spend about half their time fundraising.xxviii

When lobbyists fundraise for politicians, it creates “a self-reinforcing cycle of mutual financial dependency.” The lobbyist gives money to gain political access and curry favor with lawmakers, and lawmakers give them that access in order to keep receiving contributions. The American Bar Association calls this state of affairs “a deeply troubling source of corruption in our government.”xxix

Resource 3: Job Offers

Lobbyists frequently engage in job negotiations with legislators and staff, either while they still work in government or in the years after they leave These negotiations lead to lucrative positions in lobbying firms: between 2001 and 2011, nearly 5,400 former congressional staffers left public service to become federal lobbyists,xxxi while nearly half of retiring members of Congress currently go on to become lobbyists, up from 3% in 1974.xxxii

A key reason for this mass exodus to the lobbying sector is that we tend to undercompensate legislative branch members relative to their private-sector counterparts. New Hampshire, for instance, pays its state legislators $200 per two-year term, while New Mexico only pays elected officials a per diem rate to cover expenses.xxxiii

The U.S. Senate does better, paying legislative assistants around $65,000, legislative directors around $128,000, and senators $174,000 per yearxxxiv — all decent salaries, but all significantly lower than the average $300,000 per year earned by lobbyists with government experience.xxxv At the top-earning firms, lobbyists “may earn 10 times the salary of a member of Congress.”xxxvi

The revolving door can lead to two serious conflicts of interest. First, policymakers “may be more apt to give special favors to special interests if they envision such a high-paying [lobbyist] job for themselves on the horizon.” And second, newly minted lobbyists with recent experience in the legislature may leverage their existing political relationships to secure undue access for their clients.xxxvii For these reasons, Danielle Brian calls the revolving door “maybe the most important corrupting element in Washington.”xxxviii

Resource 4: Gifts and Travel

Finally, lobbyists sometimes provide legislators with gifts, from high-ticket items like Paul McCartney ticketsxxxix to cocktails at the local bar. Sometimes, the gifts are more directly related to policy, such as covering a legislator’s travel to a conference.xl Whether lobbyists bestow gifts to gain influence or just to express gratitude to legislators is a matter of scholarly debate, but the effect is the same: legislators feel a desire to reciprocate.xli Former Alabama representative Bill Nichols said it best: “My door is open to everybody, but for those who came out early morning in the rain to demonstrate that you support me, my door is a little more open.”xlii

Figure 1.1. Lobbyists gain influence by providing valuable resources.

More Wealth Means More Influence

The more wealth an interest group has, the more resources it can provide legislators.

Take donations. Interest groups cannot make donations to candidates directly; that is against the law. Instead, they pay their lobbyists especially high salaries, and the lobbyists then max out on contributions to legislators. In 2016, lobbyists gave federal candidates $36.1 million in individual contributions, along with another $2.75 million in PAC and soft money contributions.xliii More than 20% of this money came from lobbyists who work at just 10 lobbying firms.xliv

Wealthy business groups can also afford to make lucrative job offers to sitting legislators. For example, former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin was paid more than $19 million for his pharmaceutical lobbying work between 2006 and 2016.xlv His employer, PhRMA, spent more on federal lobbying in 2016 than all but four interest groups.xlvi

Money also facilitates the so-called “reverse revolving door.” Top-earning lobbying firms can give their executives giant bonuses, or so-called “golden parachutes,” for moving into government jobs.xlvii

Finally, the wealthiest lobbying firms and clients can produce the most sophisticated policy information. They can afford to hire experts who have years of experience tracking legislative developments, researching policy, and drafting legislation. They also have the budget to produce copious quantities of research and run expensive PR and grassroots advocacy campaigns, allowing them to flood government offices with materials espousing their particular perspectives.

As Drutman explains, corporations “are investing considerable sums in saturating the ‘intellectual environment.’” Their goal is to produce so much policy content that “when the time comes to make a decision, certain arguments and frames will come to mind quicker than others, and certain ideas and solutions will have been pre-legitimated by a wide range of trusted experts.”xlviii


In the first two articles of this series, I’ve argued that special-interest lobbyists dominate the lobbying landscape, spending vast sums of money to provide lawmakers with valuable resources. As a result, policy outcomes are skewed in their favor: the political agenda is disproportionately focused on business, it takes more money to change the status quo, and regressive policies are easily hidden inside complex and confusing legislation. And the problem is only getting worse, especially at the state level.

Clearly, some sort of intervention is needed. In my next piece, I will examine reforms that have been attempted in Congress and in the states.

Charlotte Hill is a policy and communications strategist dedicated to reforming government so that it better serves the public interest. She has a master’s degree in public policy analysis from the University of California, Berkeley. In 2011, Charlotte was a fellow with the New Leaders Council’s San Francisco chapter. The following year, she joined the chapter’s board, where she eventually served as communications chair. Charlotte has received numerous awards for her academic and political efforts, including the Jacob K. Javits Political Leadership Scholarship, the UC Berkeley Graduate Fellowship, and the Aspen Institute Socrates Program Scholarship.

i Allard, Nick. “Lobbying Is an Honorable Profession: The Right to Petition and the Competition to Be Right.” Stanford Law & Policy Review (2008): 23–68. BrooklynWorks. Brooklyn Law School, 2008. Web. 8 May 2017. <>.

ii Kollman, Ken. Outside Lobbying: Public Opinion and Interest Group Strategies. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998. 35. Print.

iii Nownes, Anthony J., and Krissy Walker Dealejandro. “Lobbying in the New Millennium: Evidence of Continuity and Change in Three States.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 9.4 (2009): 435–36. Web. 8 May 2017.

iv Drutman, Lee, and Daniel J. Hopkins. “The Inside View: Using the Enron E-mail Archive to Understand Corporate Political Attention.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 38.1 (2013): 28–29. Web. 8 May 2017.

v Ibid.

vi Nownes, Anthony J. Interest Groups in American Politics. New York: Routledge, 2013. 99. Kindle.

vii Ibid., 109.

viiiDrutman, Lee. The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. 1882. Kindle.

ix “Size of State Legislative Staff.” National Conference of State Legislatures. N.p. , n.d. Web. 8 May 2017. <>.

x Kousser, Thad. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 227. Kindle.

Most of those states have seen their staff shrink even further in the intervening years; see the legislative staffing chart for all 50 states here:

xi Glastris, Paul, and Haley Sweetland Edwards. “The Big Lobotomy.” Washington Monthly. N.p., Fall 2014. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xii Congressional Management Foundation, Senate Staff Employment Study: Salary, Tenure, and Demographic Data: 1991–2001. 2002. <>.

xiii “California Legislative Staff Tenure.” One Voter Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xiv Kousser, Thad. Term Limits and the Dismantling of State Legislative Professionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Kindle.

xv Bares, Ann. “2013 Turnover Rates by Industry.” Compensation Force. N.p., 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xvi Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander. “Who Passes Business’s “Model Bills”? Policy Capacity and Corporate Influence in U.S. State Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 12.03 (2014): 582. Web. 8 May 2017

xvii Hill, Elizabeth G. “Non-Partisan Analysis in a Partisan World.” Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2017. 308. <>.

xviii Drutman, Lee. The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. 754. Kindle.

xix Allard, Nick. “Lobbying Is an Honorable Profession: The Right to Petition and the Competition to Be Right.” Stanford Law & Policy Review (2008): 23–68. BrooklynWorks. Brooklyn Law School, 2008. Web. 8 May 2017. <>.

xx The Policy Council, “Changing of the Guard: 2007. State of the Industry for Lobbying And Advocacy. 2007. 60–61.

xxi Allard, Nick. “Lobbying Is an Honorable Profession: The Right to Petition and the Competition to Be Right.” Stanford Law & Policy Review (2008): 23–68. BrooklynWorks. Brooklyn Law School, 2008. 43. Web. 8 May 2017. <>.

xxii Gerken Heather K. and Tausanovitch Alex. “A Public Finance Model for Lobbying: Lobbying, Campaign Finance, and the Privatization of Democracy.” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy. March 2014, 13(1): 75–90.

xxiii Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander. “Who Passes Business’s “Model Bills”? Policy Capacity and Corporate Influence in U.S. State Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 12.03 (2014): 583. Web. 8 May 2017

xxiv Defenders of Wildlife, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council. N.p.: Defenders of Wildlife, 2002. Web.

xxv Eggen, Dan, and T. W. Farnam. “Lobbyists Playing Key Role in 2012 Fundraising.” Washington Post. N.p., 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxvi Frumin, Aliyah. “How Much Does It Cost to Win a Seat in Congress? If You Have to Ask…” MSNBC. NBCUniversal News Group, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxvii That number skyrockets in a large state like California, where the average state senate candidate raised nearly $900,000 in 2014. See this report on 2014 candidate spending:

xxviii Klein, Ezra. “The Most Depressing Graphic for Members of Congress.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxix Levin, Ronald M. “Lobbying Law in the Spotlight: Challenges and Proposed Improvements.” American Bar Association Task Force, 3 Jan. 2011. Web. <>.

xxx Arnsdorf, Isaac, and Austin Wright. “The Lobbying Reform That Enriched Congress.” Politico. N.p., 03 July 2016. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxxi Farnam, T.W. “Study Shows Revolving Door of Employment between Congress, Lobbying Firms.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxxii Buckley, Christopher. “A Confederacy of Lunches.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 July 2013. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxxiii “2016 Survey: State Legislative Compensation, Session Per Diem and Mileage.” National Conference of State Legislatures, 2016. Web. 8 May 2017. <>.

xxxiv Petersen, R. Eric, Lara E. Chausow, and Amber Hope Wilhelm. “Staff Pay Levels for Selected Positions in Senators’ Offices, FY2009-FY2013.” Congressional Research Service. N.p., 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 8 May 2017. <>.

xxxv Drutman, Lee, and Alexander Furnas. “K Street Pays Top Dollar for Revolving Door Talent.”Sunlight Foundation. N.p., 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxxvi “THE 10 THINGS THEY WON’T TELL YOU ABOUT MONEY-IN-POLITICS.” The Center for Responsive Politics, n.d. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxxvii Ibid.

xxxviii “How Money Rules Washington | Moyers & Company.” N.p., 17 May 2013. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xxxix Koseff, Alexei. “Jim Cooper Got Paul McCartney Tickets, $8,600 More in Gifts from Lobbyist Employers in 2016.” Sacramento Bee. N.p., 7 Mar. 2017. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xl Many members of Congress have taken trips sponsored by lobbyists; see

Like many states, Texas explicitly permits lobbyists to pay for legislators’ conference travel:

xli Susman, Thomas M. “Private Ethics, Public Conduct: An Essay on Ethical Lobbying, Campaign Contributions, Reciprocity, and the Public Good.” SSRN. N.p., 26 July 2013. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xlii Ibid.

xliii “Lobbyists: Long-Term Contribution Trends.” The Center for Responsive Politics, n.d. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xliv “Lobbyists: Top Contributors to Federal Candidates, Parties, and Outside Groups.” Center for Responsive Politics, n.d. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

These are some of the top-spending lobbying firms in America; half of them are included on the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of the 20 top-spending lobbying firms here:

xlv Fang, Lee. “When a Congressman Becomes a Lobbyist, He Gets a 1,452 Percent Raise (On Average).” The Nation. N.p., 29 June 2015. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xlvi “Top Lobbying Spenders.” The Center for Responsive Politics, n.d. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xlvii Dayen, David. “Wall Street Pays Bankers to Work in Government and It Doesn’t Want Anyone to Know.” New Republic. N.p., 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 May 2017. <>.

xlviii Drutman, Lee. The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. 892. Kindle.