Research Paper: Lobbying

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[. . .] Legislators and lobbying organizations have a strong interest in maintaining themselves in power and shaping policy and both design strategies to accomplish this. Lobbyists use a variety of methods to influence legislators in the House of Representatives and to increase the size of coalitions and supermajorities in their favor. Direct lobbying of legislators, particularly of important committee chairs and members, is more common than grassroots efforts, which "require more time and resources" (Hojnacki and Kimball, 1999, p. 1000). Rothenberg (1992) and Wright (1990) observed that fence-sitting legislators were frequent targets of direct lobbying campaigns since "they are most susceptible to persuasion." Committee chairs and members, who set the agenda in Congress, although their views on the issues in which they specialize are usually fixed and less open to change. Hansen (1991) and Snyder (1992) stated that lobbyists and PACs also "tend to work with their allies in Congress" rather than trying to persuade opponents (Hojnacki and Kimball, p. 1001). Austin-Smith and Synder (1992, 1994) noted that much lobbying in Congress is also "necessary to counteract the efforts of organizational opponents," although lobbying organizations with limited funds waste little of their efforts on opponents. When the main goal is to maintain and expand the organization, grassroots campaigns are most effective since "direct efforts may go unnoticed unless an organization reports those efforts to supporters," and grassroots work has become much easier because of the Internet (Hojnacki and Kimball, p. 1002).

In Congressional policy and politics, change is always more difficult to achieve than defense of the status quo, especially with legislators who generally prefer to avoid risks in the next election. No real change ever takes place without powerful grassroots lobbying campaigns, although committee members and chairs are less likely to be influenced by these than rank-and-file members when the bills are actually on the floor of Congress. Hojnacki and Kimball studied 648 lobbying organizations that used direct and grassroots methods on issues like criminal justice, financial regulation, land management and product liability. They concluded that grassroots campaigns were less common when the bills were still in committee, when organizations preferred to use direct lobbying with committee members known to be their allies. They did not use grassroots efforts with legislators known to be opponents, and concentrated their efforts in the districts of members where they had "a strong base of support" (Hojnacki and Kimball, p. 1018). Lobbying organizations that were linked to PACs were also less likely to engage in grassroots campaigns, while defenders of the status quo in general preferred to lobby their allies in Congress directly. These had little reason "to take advantage of their moderate capacity for grassroots lobbying" (Hojnacki and Kimball, p. 1021).

A classic example of direct lobbying behind closed doors by powerful corporate interests was the attempt by the chemical industry over the last four years to delay publication of a report by the Department of Health and Human Services that listed formaldehyde and styrene as carcinogens. Indeed, government scientists had intended to list these in the official Report on Carcinogens for many years, but were blocked due to "intense lobbying from the chemical industry" (Harris 2011). Embalmers using formaldehyde are more likely to develop leukemia and cancers of the nasal passages and upper mouth, and the chemical is also used in many products, from paint to nail polish. Styrene is used in many products as well, including boats, plastic plates and cups, bathtubs and building materials, and workers exposed to it have higher levels of lymphoma, leukemia and cancers of the pancreas and esophagus. Industry lobbying groups like the American Chemical Society and American Chemistry Council worked behind the scenes to delay the report, and attempted to create a false impression of scientific uncertainty about the dangers of these chemicals when none really existed. This happens all the time on issues of consumer and environmental protection, most notoriously over global warming being caused by carbon emissions.

Organized labor, environmental groups and nonprofit organizations were the first to develop the techniques of grassroots lobbying campaigns, although conservative and religious Right organizations also learned how to use these methods in the 1970s and 1980s. Corporate interests rarely had strong support at the grassroots, however, and as noted above their preferred technique of influencing policy and legislation was through direct lobbying of the most influential members of Congress. Liberals and the left had been so successful in inventing and refining grassroots efforts, though, that corporate America at least had to create an imitation of these, hence the widespread use of 'bear hugging' and 'astroturf'. With a bear hug, corporations embrace potential opponents on the left side of the political spectrum by offering cash donations and services. Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas first coined the term "astroturf" in the 1970s, when corporations began to hire public relations firms like Davies Communications to set up bogus grassroots campaigns. A bear hug "serves as a signal-jamming device that prevents the interest group from signaling the intensity of its views," and is especially effective with groups that have limited funds and high lobbying expenses (Lyon and Maxwell, 2004, p. 576). Astroturfing is commonly used when corporations favor a policy of weak or limited regulation of their activities, but are also aware that legislators and regulators are intensely skeptical of their direct lobbying efforts. Corporations using these strategies hope to ensure that "the public decision-maker is made worse off" since the flow of accurate information is limited, distorted or eliminated completely (Lyon and Maxwell, p. 596).

Democrats would generally be less responsive to giant corporate lobbies than to labor unions and environmental and civil rights organizations. Sophisticated corporations understand this perfectly well, which is one reason that their foundations make contributions to liberal and leftist grassroots organizations that do not normally share their agenda. AT&T is using a bear hug and astroturf strategy in building a campaign of public support for its acquisition of T-Mobile. It influenced liberal groups like the NAACP, the National Education Association and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation that had "no obvious interest in telecom deals" to write to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in favor of the merger (Krigman 2011). To be sure, this makes grassroots supporters leery of any organization that accepts corporate funds and then engages in lobbying on their behalf. According to the Sunlight Foundation, AT&T is engaged in "deep lobbying" because its foundation gave the NAACP $1 million in 2009, as well as $75,000 to the NEA and $50,000 to GLAAD. Altogether, the AT&T Foundation was one of the largest corporate sponsors on the arts, education, charities and nonprofits, following the same type of public relations strategy laid out by John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford when they created their corporate foundations in the early 20th Century. In this case, though, the corporation used its recipients in a lobbying campaign so blatantly that the media picked up on it.

Any legislator or regulator with even minimal political perception will understand at once that these organizations are acting at the request of their corporate patron and benefactor, not out of any deep interest in telecommunications, and will tend to discount such astroturf campaigns. Since Democrats are now in control of the Justice Department and FCC, and are not known to be sympathetic to big corporate monopolies, AT&T was not "taking any chances." It used its support for numerous liberal causes and organizations to bolster its public image as a benevolent and progressive corporation rather than a reactionary one of the type controlled by the Koch brothers, for example, or other ultra-right Texas oilmen. In addition, the company emphasized that the merger would enable it to provide more broadband coverage to poor and underserved regions of the country. As Sherry Lichtenberg of the National Regulatory Research Institute explained, large corporations know that they have to obtain the support of real grassroots organizations to have any real influence with Democrats, although in this case the influence of consumer groups opposed to the merger was far weaker than AT&T's massive lobbying campaign. In Washington today, "this is a standard way of doing things. Figure out which are the strongest constituencies and go for them" (Krigman 2011). AT&T could also point out that some grassroots organizations that it did not fund (yet), like the Sierra Club and National Black Farmers Association, were also in favor of the merger because it provided more broadband access in rural areas.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the attempts by conservatives and corporate interests to copy the grassroots lobbying methods originally developed by liberal, labor, environmental and civil rights organizations should be considered high praise indeed. To be sure, politicians and regulators have often been moved by promises of cash, employment and by information sharing, but they also must be concerned about how voters view their actions. Those whose livelihoods depend of political patronage or the views of voters know… [END OF PREVIEW]

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