During the 2011-2012 legislative year, private donors contributed $657 million to members of Congress. Only 0.53% of the U.S. adult population donated to candidates this past election cycle. Over 12,000 lobbyists spend much of their time in Washington, D.C., while most of the 235 million adult Americans stay at home spread out over the 50 states. While members of Congress receive hundreds of letters, e-mails, calls, and social media contacts from constituents every day, the percentage of voters exercising this right is probably similar to the percentage donating. Is it any wonder why special interests have more clout over legislation passed by Congress?
Opinions and money matter. However, what is even more important to a legislator is information. Representatives and senators do not read every bill. They do not research every issue. They rely on their staffs to provide summaries on which to base their vote and to write comments to present on the floor during debate. Enter the lobbyist.
Information is power, so it is not coincidental that information is the lobbyist’s main tool. On every issue of concern to their clients, lobbyists provide hundreds of reports. As with any report prepared by a special interest group or industry, the data used and information provided supports the appropriate point of view. These reports include a summary of key points to make it easier on staff to digest the information and prepare the lawmaker’s position. Because of this ability to provide information, lobbyists gain direct access to the senator or representative. The lobbyist who has the most access is probably the one representing clients with positions on the issue similar to the member of Congress’.
Members of Congress say the opinions of their constituents matter. I believe this. If a senator or representative receives hundreds of communications expressing a similar view, their staff will let them know. But the decision to do this is made by a staffer. Members of the House are allowed a staff of 18. Senators have no limit on the size of their staffs. When a constituent communication is received a staffer logs it in, reviews the subject, and most likely sends a template response to the constituent. I have to assume most members of Congress have their staffs provide a summary of communications received on some set schedule.
How does this statistic of constituent opinion compare to the information presented by the lobbyist? While it is helpful to know what percentage of those who are responsible for your election support one position or the other, I think there is an assumption that since you were elected, a majority of your constituents support any position taken on a particular issue. The information provided by the lobbyist will help explain any differences of opinion come the next election. The lobbyist and their client wins.
In providing information, lobbyists fill a need and perform a valuable service. The problem arises when the value of providing the service overrides the will of the voters and the needs of the country as a whole. There are unbiased sources of information available on any subject. These should be the primary source of research for congressional staffers. Special interests and industry groups should be treated with the same respect as any individual. Their opinions should be given the same weight as any other concerned citizen, no more or no less. Until this happens, voters are at a disadvantage.