Strategic Lobbying and the Pressure to Compromise Member Interests

Published date01 December 2022
Date01 December 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(4) 12551270
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211061730
Strategic Lobbying and the Pressure to
Compromise Member Interests
Thomas T. Holyoke
Do lobbyists always advocate for the interests of the members or clients employing them, or, under competing
pressures, do they sometimes take positions on bills ref‌lecting the interests of lawmakers or other lobbyists? Do they, in
fact, lobby strategically by making choices that balance competing pressures in pursuit of goals like furthering their
careers? Most lobbying research assumes that interest groups and lobbyists are the same, but I argue that the interests of
lobbyists may be different from those they represent, which I test with a model of strategic lobbying using data on
positions lobbyists took on bills in Congress from 2006 to 2017 made available by MapLight . I f‌ind that lobbyists
sometimes do take positions at odds with member interests under pressure from legislators, other lobbyists, and the
president, though some groups can constrain their lobbyists. I conclude by speculating on what this mean s for lobbying as
a form of representation.
lobbying, interest group, Congress, lobbyist, strategy, representation
Journalists, scholars, and even many politicians tend to
assume that lobbyists take public positions on issues
ref‌lecting the wants, needs, and desires of the people they
are paid to represent, or at least most of them. Lobbying,
after all, is supposed to be a form of representation and is
therefore only legitimate when these professional advo-
cates accurately articulate the interests of those they
represent. Perhaps this is why scholars tend to combine
lobbyists and the groups or corporations for which they
lobby into the same unit of analysis. Yet why then, when
the COVID relief bill passed Congress in 2021, were
members of the American Federation of Teachers upset to
read in the New York Times that their leaders, apparently
under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Chuck
Schumer (D-NY), had advocated for federal money for
private schools in New York City, violating the organi-
zations longstanding position against such funding
(Green 2021)? Was this unique, or do lobbyists often take
positions that are, to some degree, inconsistent with the
policy preferences of the members or clients they rep-
resent? If the latter, is it because powerful legislators
pressure them into it, and they simply hope that members
will not notice? Are there other pressures also capable of
pushing lobbyists to go against the people they represent?
If so, what are they, and whose goals are lobbyists really
I explore these questions in this paper. Using data on
the positions taken by lobbyists on bills from 2007 to 2016
in the US Congress, along with a variety of measures
regarding the organizations and members they represent,
the lawmakers supporting the bills and amendments on
which they lobby, and the choices of other lobbyists, I
develop and test a model of lobbying that is strategic in the
sense that lobbyists make decisions under conf‌licting
pressures to achieve goals. I f‌ind that lobbyists are subject
to signif‌icant pressures from legislators and other lob-
byists, which sometimes leads them to compromise
member interests, though advocacy groups with active
memberships can constrain them. This has signif‌icant
ramif‌ications for discussions about why lobbying is tol-
erated in representative political systems like the United
States, as well as lobbying ethics.
Department of Political Science, California State University, Fresno, CA,
Corresponding Author:
Thomas T. Holyoke, Department of Political Science, California State
University, 2225 East San Ramon, M/S MF19, Fresno, CA 93740-8029,
Lobbying and Representation
Lobbying, whether on behalf of people organized as in-
terest groups or for corporations with stakes in policy-
making, has never been popular with the public, and many
would limit or ban the profession if they could.
At least in
the United States, though, they cannot. Inf‌luenced by the
ideas of the philosopher David Hume, James Madison and
other authors of the Constitution believed it was wrong to
prevent people from pursuing their own self-interests,
even though it meant policies might only ref‌lect bal-
ances of power between intensely motivated factions
pursuing their interests rather than the public interest
(today this is called interest group pluralism). Madison
therefore protected both collective action and the right to
advocate with the First Amendments freedoms of as-
sembly and government petitioning clauses (Lawson and
Seidman 1999;Thomas 1993). Since petitioning is typ-
ically done today by lobbyists, the First Amendment thus
legitimizes lobbying in the US.
Yet this also means these professional advocates only
enjoy constitutional protection if they advocate for
nothing other than the desires and demands of the people
employing them. In the language of principal-agent the-
ory, lobbyists are not their own masters pushing their own
policy preferences, but agents tasked with advocating the
preferences of others regardless of personal desires.
Perhaps this is why for decades scholars used simple
models of lobbying that assumed there was no difference
between interest groups and their lobbyists; they become a
single unit of analysis. Whether choosing to lobby party
leaders, committee members, or home-state legislators in
Congress (Hall and Wayman 1990), or whether to lobby
friends or foes (Austen-Smith and Wright 1994;Hojnacki
and Kimball 1998), lobbyists were assumed to just be
advocating the policy desires of their group members or
corporate clients.
Some anecdotal and empirical evidence, however,
suggests this does not always happen, that lobbyists are
not always faithful agents simply representing the inter-
ests of the people or organizations paying them. In his
work on health care policy, Kersh (2000;2002) found
lobbyists frequently altering their positions on legislation
to accommodate the demands of lawmakers with little or
no client consultation. After revelations that lobbyist Jack
Abramoff ripped-off clients to advance his personal in-
terests (e.g., Lowery and Marchetti 2012), scholars grew
concerned that the rate at which legislators and staff were
leaving Congress through the revolving doorto exploit
their connections as lobbyists for prof‌it might lead to more
of the same (LaPira and Thomas 2017). Researchers also
found evidence of lobbyists over-charging their corporate
clients (Schiff et al. 2015) or advocating bill positions at
odds with member preferences (at least when measured
with ordinal scales in Holyoke 2011). Unethical lobbyists
might be getting away with this behavior, scholars feared,
because of severe information asymmetry in their
principal-agent relationships with members or clients. Not
only do members depend on lobbyists to advocate their
interests, but also to tell them how they do it (Schlozman
and Tierney 1986), making it possible for lobbyists to
compromise member interests without getting caught
(Stephenson and Jackson 2010).
This does not mean all lobbyists are rogue agents
pursuing their own policy goals at the expense of their
members or clients. Most are probably quite ethical, but
there are theoretical reasons to believe they have incen-
tives to support policy positions other than those favored
by their members or clients. These are rooted in
Salisburys (1969) argument that while members join
interest groups to get private material benef‌its unavailable
outside of membership, lobbyists (and other organiza-
tional leaders) start-up such organizations so they can
lobby for the policies they desire. Not only did Salisbury
analytically separate lobbyists from those they represent,
he also attributed to them fundamentally different mo-
tives. Ainsworth and Sened (1993) took this a step further,
arguing that even when group members are intensely
interested in policy, their collective positions often do not
align with those of the legislators on whom their lobbyist
depends for access to the lawmaking process. Because
they are dependent, lobbyists may be pushed to modify
their membersor clientspositions on bills to ref‌lect those
of their patron legislators, and expected to sell the changes
to their members so legislators get the credit they need for
re-election. Positions are thus fungible, and the people
lobbyists are pressured to support may not be the ones
paying them for representation.
What researchers have not yet done is systematically
look to see whether lobbyists often advocate positions on
legislation inconsistent with, and perhaps directly op-
posed to, member interests, or clearly explained why they
would do so. Models of lobbying are starting to move in
this direction by exploring strategy, meaning goal-
directed responses to conf‌licting pressures, but only
very recently have scholars tried assembling coherent
models of strategic lobbying, and none have tried to use it
to explain anything like lobbying against member or client
interests. Using their insights, I attempt to outline and test
such a model.
Strategic Lobbying Under
Competing Pressures
Models of strategic behavior presume that actors pursue
relatively well-def‌ined goals in complex environments,
which for lobbyists, some argue, means balancing pres-
sures from multiple sources to pursue long and lucrative
1256 Political Research Quarterly 75(4)

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