Covid Offers a Brief Glimpse of a World Without Lobbyists
What would government be like without the influence of lobbyists? This isn't just some fantasy scenario -- we're actually getting a taste of this in several state legislatures right now.
Jesse Paul and Thy Vo have a fascinating piece in the Colorado Sun noting what's been happening in that state's legislature this year. In short, state legislators and their staff, as well as journalists covering the state government, were able to obtain Covid vaccines before the legislative session started last week. They're free to roam the halls and move about the legislative chambers doing their jobs. Registered lobbyists, however, have not, for the most part, been vaccinated, and they're subject to substantial restrictions on building access. At least for now, there just aren't many lobbyists waiting in the lobby for a chance run-in with a lawmaker.
Colorado isn't the only state where this is happening. Recent articles find that lobbyists have much more limited access to lawmakers than usual thanks to Covid restrictions in Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, and Alaska. (I can only assume there are more that I just haven't seen.)
So... what does such a government look like? Well, judging from the Colorado story, the restrictions don't mean that lobbyists are gone. It's just much harder for them to do their job. It's easier for legislators to dodge lobbyists and avoid awkward conversations. Lobbyists can call the legislators' public office numbers, of course, but it's easier to ignore those calls if you're not going to see those folks later.
The Covid restrictions seem to have magnified some inequalities in the lobbying community, as well. As Paul and Vo write:
The most powerful people at the statehouse this year will be those with a coronavirus vaccination and a deep Rolodex. “The people who have the upper hand are the people who have these legislators’ cell phone (numbers),” said Hannah Collazo, who runs Environment Colorado and plans to avoid the Capitol as much as possible this year out of health concerns....
“What it really does is it further enhances the power of those who have it and weakens those who don’t even more,” said Greg Brophy, a Republican former state senator who now works as a lobbyist.
Yet another thing that these restrictions are revealing is the role that lobbyists actually play in helping lawmakers. Colorado, like 14 other states, has a term-limited legislature. Members can only serve eight years in each chamber. It's hard to learn lawmaking skills in such a short time, and often by the time you're any good at it, you're on your way out the door. Staff can help, but most legislators only get part-time help and legislative staffer is a very high turnover position.
By contrast, lobbyists are not term limited. Many are former legislators, and some have been lobbyists for decades. They are sometimes the institutional memory that legislators simply can't be:
Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, says lawmakers often rely on the deep well of policy knowledge that lobbyists have, which makes up for the limited resources provided to state legislators.
“Really, it’s just us and then a part-time aide for the session,” Soper said. “It’s not like we have a vast, professional staff like Congress. So the lobby does become that institutional knowledge. If they’re not in the hallway and they’re not able to connect with us easily, it certainly frustrates the lawmaking process....”
Some lobbyists... have been in the building much longer than the average statehouse politician. “I was an aide here in 2005,” Soper said. “I’d say 60% of the lobby is the same as (it was in) 2005.”
The political scientist in me wants to jump at this really interesting research opportunity, and there might be some good ways to study this. But it's actually kind of a messy natural experiment.
For one thing, if you could detect changed spending priorities in the state legislature in 2021, is that because the lobbyists lost some access? Maybe, but it could also be because there's a massive health crisis going on in all fifty states that's substantially taxing state treasuries. It could also be because many legislatures are convening on-line rather than in-person, or because some key members are out sick, or some other reasons. Basically, there are a lot of variables in play right now and it's hard to isolate just the lobbyist one.
Also, this is a pretty temporary effect. As vaccines become more widespread over the next few months, more lobbyists will work their way back into legislative life. And while their influence may be reduced right now, they may still be able to secure some of their spending priorities by the end of the legislative session.
But at the very least, we're watching a curious change to the legislative environment, and we're getting a sense of whether lobbying is on balance a help or a hinderance to making law.