The real outcome of most lobbying — in fact, its greatest success — is the achievement of nothing, the maintenance of the status quo. “Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens,” says Frank Baumgartner, one author of the book and a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs. We see a pattern of no change, no change and no change — and then some huge reform.”
But those large reforms — such as health care for 32 million uninsured Americans under President Barack Obama, the scheduled phase-out of the estate tax under President George W. Bush, and the normalization of trade relations with China under President Bill Clinton — are far more often linked to a change in who inhabits the White House than to campaign contributions or K Street hires.
The weak link between money and policy change is counterintuitive but understandable, the authors say. The balance of power in Washington already hugely favors the rich. The status quo reflects the considerable advantages the wealthy have managed to secure in the law, down through the generations.
“If they really wanted something, they probably already have it,” Baumgartner says.
Lee Drutman has a somewhat different interpretation:
But, to me, 40 percent is actually an astonishing success rate.
Sure, this may not look like much if your starting assumption is that special interests own Washington, and that all a clever lobbyist needs to do is approach a Congressman with the promise of a campaign check and that poor helpless Congressman will practically be begging to fete that lobbyist with most indefensible corporate giveaway.
But, on the other hand, if you’ve spent any time in Washington, and you know how hard it is to get just about anything done, 40 percent is definite batting champion territory.
And the big point of the study is actually about the difficulty of change: the status quo is really, really sticky in Washington, in good part because on most important issues there are forces mobilized on both sides, and every action on one side provokes an equal but opposite reaction on the other side. Forces fight each other to stalemate for years. But then then, suddenly, there is movement – and whoever has won the war of positioning is likely to win the war of motion.
But the problem is that nobody – not even the cleverest of lobbyists – really knows which ideas and issues are likely to break and when.
The two views are not mutually-exclusive.