Why lobbyists care so much about Cabinet hearings

As Senate confirmation hearings commence this week, the Capitol will be awash with lobbyists. At Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump to kick off bid for second term in Florida The Hill's Morning Report - Trump to kick off bid for second term in Florida Sarah Sanders to leave White House MORE's (R-Ala.) Judiciary Committee hearing, the NAACP and the National Fraternal Order of Police will opine on his fitness to become the next attorney general in front of a room jam-packed with lobbyists.

While all Cabinet appointments draw attention from interest groups, those made during the presidential transition period draw the most.

Lobbyists won't be alone, other friends and foes have been invited to participate. But it will be the lobbyists who will signal how receptive the Washington policy community will be to the next administration: submitting letters of support and opposition; delivering in-person testimony; and, for the first time, using social media to comment on every moment of each confirmation hearing.

What the data say 

Based on data from nearly 40 years of Cabinet nominations (1977 to 2009), I found that interest groups were more likely to participate in a hearing held during the transition period than after (controlling for other factors, such as whether the government was unified at the time and characteristics of the Cabinet agency).

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In "Lobbying the New President," I showed that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of transition hearings (hearings held for Cabinet appointments during the first year of a newly elected president) featured at least one letter submitted by an interest group compared to just half (52 percent) of non-transition hearings.

There has been an average of five letters submitted in transition hearings compared to just three-and-a-half in non-transition hearings, and hearings held during the transition period are more likely to have interest group officials speak: 29 percent of transition hearings had at least one interest group official give testimony versus 23 percent of non-transition hearings.

These data demonstrate that, in several ways, interest groups are most active in the Senate confirmation process during presidential transitions.

Why do lobbyists participate?

Interest groups participate in the confirmation hearing process for a variety of reasons, though derailing the appointment is not one of them.

On occasion, nominees will withdraw from consideration — such as Linda Chavez, nominee secretary of Labor in 2001 and Tom Daschle, nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services in 2009 — but the Senate has rarely voted not to confirm a Cabinet appointment. In fact, most letters submitted to Senate committees endorse the nominee. For example, of the more than 100 letters submitted during the confirmation hearing of Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009, less than 5 percent were in opposition.

Instead, interest groups seem to use confirmation hearings to build a relationship with the presumptive Cabinet official and cement a direction for agency policymaking. Assuming the nominee will be confirmed, interest groups may want to gain on-the-record assurances that dramatic changes in policy will not occur in the near future. This could serve future lobbying efforts as well as assuage the concerns of worried interest group members far from Washington.

If the newly elected president campaigned by promising policy action, interest groups may participate in the hearing to assess the extent to which the Cabinet nominee shares these views. Confirmation hearings, then, are a way for interest groups to gather information for future lobbying on policy and for internal communication with group members.

In 2016, it seems unlikely that any of President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally MORE's nominees will be rejected by the Senate. However, social media provides a new opportunity for interest groups and other political organizations to participate in the hearing process.

While it remains to be seen how groups representing those most fearful of the Trump policy agenda opt to participate on Twitter and Facebook, can lobbyists influence the confirmation process through social media in a way previous technologies would not permit?

Can interest groups now use the confirmation process to funnel public pressure on ObamaCare repeal, immigration reform and investigations on Russian hacking? 

Like never before, the busy period before the inauguration may bring an unusually high degree of public attention. If this happens, it may influence the crucial first-100-day policy agenda of Donald Trump even before Day 1.

Heath Brown is assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York, John Jay College and the Graduate Center. He is the author of "Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition" (Routledge, 2012).


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