Lobbyists are valued more for who they know than for what they know:
“Revolving door” lobbyists: The value of political connections in Washington, by Jordi Blanes i Vidal, Mirko Draca, and Christian Fons-Rosen, Vox EU: Lobbyists – paid advocates who aim to influence the decisions of legislators or government officials – play an increasingly important role in the political system of the US and other democracies. In 2008, for example, $3.97 billion was spent on lobbying US federal officials – more than twice the amount spent ten years earlier.
The recent US debates on healthcare and financial reform have been marked by sharp criticisms of the role of staffers-turned-lobbyists in watering down the bills. For example, in academic circles, the political economy of financial reform has recently been discussed by Johnson and Kwak (2010), Mian et al. (2010), and Igan et al. (2009) among others.
The movement of political staffers from roles in the government to lucrative jobs in the lobbying industry is often described as a “revolving door”. This flow of money and staffers towards Washington’s lobbying firms has led to concerns that corporations and other organizations are able to buy influence and acquire privileged access to serving politicians. Furthermore, ex-staffers gain private benefits in such transactions, and this may have a negative impact on their incentives before leaving Congress.
To what extent can former government officials “cash in” on the personal connections acquired during their periods of public service? Our recent research (Blanes i Vidal et al. 2010) provides the first quantitative evidence of how former congressional staffers benefit from Washington’s “revolving door”.
Is it what you know or who you know?
The most common criticism of former staffers is that they are simply trading on their political connections. But lobbyists often dispute this notion. They claim instead that their earnings reflect expertise on policy issues and the inner workings of government in general. In other words, they argue that it is “what you know” not “who you know” that matters.
Empirically, the issue of separating the “what you know” from the “who you know” is a challenge for researchers. A plausible argument can be made that former staffers would be high earners even if political connections did not matter. The specific problem here is separating the effects of ability and expertise on earnings from those of acquired political connections. Generally, earnings or revenue data only allow us to observe the effects of both factors together.
Our research addresses this founding of causes by focusing on situations where the knowledge doesn't change but the connections do. Specifically we look at the impact on lobbyist income when a serving politician leaves office. The point at which a politician leaves office provides a window for examining the specific role of political connections. If a politician is no longer serving in Congress, then the political connection held by their former staffers should in effect be obsolete.
This is because the politician in question no longer has direct influence over legislative outcomes or the content of congressional debates. In turn, this means that in cases where gaining access is a goal of special interest groups, lobbying spending will move away from lobbyists affiliated with former politicians and towards those with still current connections.
Our estimates based on this “identification strategy” indicate that the value of political connections to lobbyists is high. Lobbyists suffer an average revenue loss of over 20% when their former political employer leaves Congress. In dollar terms, this translates into $177,000 per year for the typical lobbyist’s practice. Furthermore, this effect is persistent for at least three years – it seems that it is difficult for lobbyists to offset the impact of a lost political connection. ...