How influential is business in Washington?

Washington has been awash of late in debates about the outsized influence of corporate money, including news of alleged corruption at FIFA, suspicious donations to the Clinton Foundation and the future of the Export-Import Bank. Money certainly seems to buy access, but exactly how much influence is not altogether clear.

A new article on the role of corporate lobbying sheds new light on these debates. The research (to be published in a forthcoming issue of Interest Groups & Advocacy) shows business to be much more constrained and opposed than we have come to expect. Penn State University Professor of Political Science Marie Hojnacki and several collaborators studied a random sample of federal policy issues to assess the prevalence and relative success of business interests. What do the numbers say about whether corporations dominate and win policy debates?

{mosads}To answer the first part of the question, the researchers looked at specific policies issues — such as a discussion in the early 2000s within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to change certain health and safety standards — and who lined up on different sides of the debate. What they found generally confirms what we know from previous research: Businesses have a seat at the table of most policy debates. Two-fifths (40 percent) of the time, primarily business interests are on one side of a policy debate, around a third (30 percent) are citizen interests and the remainder a mix of occupational (like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) and governmental interests (like the National Association of Counties).

The researchers went a step further to examine who opposed business interests in these policy debates. They found that in an almost a quarter of cases (24 percent), citizen interest organizations opposed business interests, and government organizations (10.6 percent), multiple interests (13.5 percent) and occupational interests (3.8 percent) also provided opposition to business. In less than 10 precent of the cases did business face off against other business interests. The researchers conclude that “Business, clearly a dominant voice in policy debates, does not go unchallenged.”

The more pressing question, though, is whether this prevalence leads to policy victories, or whether the organized opposition has any countervailing influence. And here the findings are most interesting. The researchers compared the percentage of time business wins versus each of the groups of opponents at two- and four-year intervals. What they found was that when business and citizen interests were on opposing sides of a policy debate, each side wins about the same portion of the time (40 percent) after four years. Even more surprisingly, in the shorter two-year term, citizen interests were even more successful than business, winning in over half (56 percent) of the cases compared to just around a quarter (24 percent) for business.

Findings such as these should not close the debate about the influence of business interests in Washington. Rather, the finding corroborates other social science research that finds Washington policymaking to be much more complex and multidimensional than it often appears. There are powerful pressures to maintain the status quo and oppose change, sometimes to the benefit of corporate America, but in many other cases in opposition to the policy change business interests are lobbying for.

Brown is assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and reviews editor for Interest Groups & Advocacy. He is the author of the forthcoming Tea Party Divided (Praeger, 2015).

Tags big business Business corporate America corporate interest Debate Lobbying Policy debate policymaking
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