Voters’ demands for lobbying regulation are unmet by elected officials

Voters don’t trust elected officials. One of the ways this phenomenon manifests itself is by popular support for various forms of regulation of the officials’ political activity. The fact that this sentiment doesn’t get reflected in policy – just like public opinion regarding the salaries of elected officials – is a blunt failure of the electoral responsiveness dogma.

Rhetoric being cheaper than policy, some promises to regulate lobbying do get made:

I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists — and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president. Barack Obama, 2007

This promise was not, of course, translated to policy. But that aside, even as rhetoric this is rather tepid. Hammering lobbyists publicly – one of the only groups of people more widely distrusted than elected officials themselves – should have been an easy way for candidates and incumbents to win votes. But doing so would involve not only offending benefactors who finance the politicians’ campaigns but also offending former and future colleagues who happen to currently be on the other side of the revolving door.

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35 Responses

  1. Perhaps Obama’s actions didn’t live up to his rhetoric as this is notoriously difficult to achieve. In the UK it’s comparatively easy to find out which lobbyists government officials have been talking to, but if access were to be tightly regulated (and detailed conversations transcribed), lobbyists would easily find a way of setting up clandestine meetings. Over the last few decades there has been a lot of pressure on UK MPs not to take on outside jobs and consultancies and this has created a lower house comprised of full-time professional politicians who will do or say anything in order to hold on to their seat (independence of means being a prerequisite for independence of mind). It’s also a mistake to think that politicians privilege business lobbies purely on account of their campaign contributions — businesses also provide jobs (and tax revenues), hence the privileged status of commercial lobbyists (“It’s the economy, stupid”). Needless to say this can set up conflicts of interest between industry and (say) public health campaigners, but it’s the job of government to negotiate a sensible path between the two.

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  2. Keith: “Perhaps Obama’s actions didn’t live up to his rhetoric as this is notoriously difficult to achieve.”

    It would be extraordinarily difficult, but it is also worth noting that he experiences relatively little institutional pressure to live up to his promises. His first concern was hitting that 50%+1 mark. There’s no equivalent here of a parliamentary party replacing it’s leader/PM midterm because they are governing in a fashion inconsistent with the party’s expectations/goals/near-term electoral strategy. As long as a presidential candidate can hit that 50%+1 mark they can turn around and do as they like. At least until re-election, at which point they have a strong incumbency advantage. If they win that they really are home-free.

    Plus, governing on any matter in the US is sufficiently difficult that politicians are guaranteed a good excuse for reneging on their pre-electoral platforms. No one, neither the president nor the parties, has power enough to be well and truly responsible for the big picture. Not surprisingly, the big picture ends up being crap.

    If this data were for Germany or some other country with a less dysfunctional political system then it would be interesting.

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  3. > if access were to be tightly regulated (and detailed conversations transcribed), lobbyists would easily find a way of setting up clandestine meetings.

    Indeed, and we should stop trying to regulate killing because killers easily ways of arranging clandestine killings.

    In any case, the question is not, of course, how effective regulation would be as a way of reducing the power of lobbyists, but how effective promoting regulation and reviling lobbyists would be as a way of winning votes.

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  4. >Indeed, and we should stop trying to regulate killing because killers easily [find] ways of arranging clandestine killings.

    Argument by analogy leads us nowhere (because I’ll just parry with Prohibition, the War on Drugs or whatever). In this particular case, tighter regulation is likely to have the dysfunctional effects that I mentioned — much better to rely on the structural approach that Naomi has suggested.

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  5. > I’ll just parry with Prohibition, the War on Drugs

    Yes – I can see a flourishing organized crime industry setting up clandestine meetings between lobbyists and MPs.

    > or whatever

    Exactly.

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  6. The point is both simple and straightforward — any activity that is prohibited (or overregulated) in the public sphere will go underground. This applies to everything from the black economy (especially in high-tax regimes) to illegal drugs. And well-intended moves (discouraging MPs from doing a day job; “family friendly” parliamentary hours) have malign consequences (loss of the independence of mind that results from independence of means).

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  7. > any activity that is prohibited (or overregulated) in the public sphere will go underground

    Indeed. And for this reason killing must not be overregulated.

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  8. Again, all this light entertainment is beside the point.

    Here is are a couple of specific questions:

    (1) Wouldn’t bashing lobbyists and regulating lobbying be an effective way to win votes?

    (2) If the answer to (1) is positive, why don’t they do it? Isn’t votes all they care about?

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  9. The way to win votes is to bash lobbyists and adopt rhetoric like “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.” Formulating specific proposals and putting them into practice is another thing, for the (different) reasons that have been outlined by Naomi and myself.

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  10. Formulating proposals and making a show of promoting them should be easy enough, irrespective of implementation or even of intention of implementation.

    But even if we restrict attention to rhetoric alone, Obama was being very tepid. Since the anti-lobbyist sentiment is so widespread, why didn’t he go after it more aggressively? What’s more, why don’t the Republicans, and all parties in all Western countries adopt similar rhetoric? Don’t they all want to get a share of the anti-lobbyists vote? The median voter despises lobbyists – why don’t party lines converge to serve this sentiment, at least in terms of rhetoric?

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  11. Obama’s rhetoric doesn’t strike me as tepid. If politicians are not pursuing this aggressively it indicates that the median voter does not regard it as a particularly salient issue. To claim that the median voter “despises” lobbyists strikes me a strong gloss on the Rasmussen findings (I would imagine that many voters wouldn’t even know the meaning of the word). I can’t imagine that a large number of voters would switch their allegiances on the strength of an anti-lobbying campaign (if they would then all major parties would compete aggressively on this issue).

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  12. First-campaign Obama was brilliant at being everything to everyone, which is a difficult balance to maintain. Trying to push a formal proposal would have committed him to defending the nitty-gritty details of that proposal and he gets bogged down in discussing superfluous policy details no one cares about FAR too easily. Pushing harder on any one issue would have made that issue more difficult to ignore after winning without looking like a retreat or a betrayal and he knew full well nothing was going to change on the lobbying front. This, of course, would have hurt him going into reelection.

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  13. > If politicians are not pursuing this aggressively it indicates that the median voter does not regard it as a particularly salient issue.

    So, the mere fact that voters say they want to see lobbying regulated is not a reliable indicator of what they care about. What really tells us what voters care about is what elected politicians do. If politicians do not talk about lobbying regulation, we can be assured that voters do not really care about this issue. Presumably, the public doesn’t really want to see salaries of politicians reduced either, otherwise politicians would have done that (or at least talked about it). Politicians, it seems, have some sort of a supernatural connection with voters that mere pollsters cannot detect.

    It turns out that it is not voters’ opinions which determine what politicians do, but the other way around – what politicians do determines what voters’ opinions are.

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  14. If you ask someone in a survey whether they like motherhood and apple pie then most people will respond in the affirmative. But if you ask a random sample of voters what their principal concerns are (open-ended, rather than multiple-choice format) I doubt if political lobbying will figure very highly on the list — they would probably be more concerned about jobs, taxes, welfare, healthcare etc. If lobbying was a highly salient issue with voters, then politicians would be competing ferociously to capture these votes (irrespective of whether they believed it possible to deliver policies to address voters’ concerns).

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  15. Naomi,

    > Trying to push a formal proposal would have committed him to defending the nitty-gritty details of that proposal and he gets bogged down in discussing superfluous policy details no one cares about FAR too easily.

    This argument is generic. If we believe it then any piece of legislation becomes a no-win issue with the voters and therefore something that should be avoided.

    More generally, since Keith and yourself are so adept at coming up with explanations for any rhetoric and policy, no matter what public opinion is, your claims that elected government is responsive – at any level or any configuration – become unfalsifiable. If government does what the majority wants it to do, then it is because it is responsive. If it doesn’t then this is because of any one of an infinite variety of excuses, and elected government is still responsive.

    Such a theory has no explanatory power for the behavior of elected government and is no more than dogma.

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  16. When the position of the median voter is finely balanced between the opposing political poles then policies that accurately track median-voter preferences will be to do nothing at all. Politicians seek to be all things to all people in order to increase voters’ support to the point that they can actually do something — unfortunately at that point their actions belie their rhetoric, hence the temptation to sit on their hands. It’s important to realise the the median-voter theorem is descriptive, not normative.

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  17. > It’s important to realise the the median-voter theorem is descriptive

    As you are using this notion it describes nothing and everything. Whatever the observed facts are, you come up with some convoluted story that supposedly shows those facts are compatible with electoral responsiveness.

    If voters say they want something and vote for the candidate who said he would do it but he doesn’t follow through once elected then it is because it is not good policy [why would that even matter?]. If the politicians don’t even talk about it, then voters don’t really want it. It one politicians talks about it and others don’t, then [insert some other story here].

    Again, this is not a theory, but dogma. A theory creates some expectations about reality. Dogma remains fixed under any set of observations.

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  18. >A theory creates some expectations about reality

    The theory states that in a two party system, policies will converge on the preferences of the median voter. As the latter is an arithmetic construct then, if preferences are evenly divided midway between the two opposing polls, policy makers will be largely impotent (especially if empirical voters are located closer to the poles than the median). That strikes me as an accurate description of US politics.

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  19. > if preferences are evenly divided midway between the two opposing polls, policy makers will be largely impotent (especially if empirical voters are located closer to the poles than the median). That strikes me as an accurate description of US politics.

    Yet the case discussed here – that of lobbying regulation – is diametrically different to your description. In this case there is wide a consensus among voters about desired policy to which politicians of neither party are responding. Somehow this doesn’t strike you as posing any sort of problem for your view.

    It is this situation in which no matter what the facts are they always strike a person as conforming to their model which is typical to dogmatism.

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  20. >In this case there is a wide consensus among voters

    You have yet to present any evidence that the political lobbying issue is viewed as highly salient by a majority of voters. My impression is that citizens are more concerned about jobs, taxes, welfare, healthcare etc.

    BTW the impotence problem only applies when the median voter position is situated towards the middle of the left-right policy spectrum. If public opinion swings toward either pole then both parties will adjust their policies to reflect the change of public preferences. If, say, median public opinion moved towards the 80% “liberal” position then voters would start to get some bang for their bucks (or change from their chads), because politicians who proposed (and implemented) “liberal” policies would only lose the support of the 20% who clustered towards the conservative pole. Both parties would fight to out-liberal each other and (liberal-minded) voters would benefit at the expense of the conservative minority. Does that count as an “expectation about reality”?

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  21. > Does that count as an “expectation about reality”?

    Where did the “salience” issue disappear in this fairy tale you keep retelling? Just one paragraph earlier it was such an important requirement for responsiveness that it was italicized, and now, nothing?

    Don’t you feel the least bit embarrassed at writing two contradictory paragraphs within the same comment?

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  22. The salience of individual political issues and the overall mood of public opinion are separate dimensions. A swing in the latter (towards the left of the right) has no direct impact on whether or not an issue is viewed as salient by the public. The price of gasoline or electricity are important issues for both liberals and conservatives whereas (I would suggest) fewer voters rank the regulation of political lobbying as of similar importance. If they did, then vote-grubbing politicians would pay attention to this issue (“it’s the lobbying, stupid”), whatever the overall political mood of the population at the time.

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  23. Yoram: >”This argument is generic. If we believe it then any piece of legislation becomes a no-win issue with the voters and therefore something that should be avoided.”

    Not at all. He ran as an outsider. Talking like a policy wonk would not have fit his narrative. Different people, different strategies. Don’t be too eager to jump to the most extreme generalization possible. There are far too many variables at play. This isn’t physical or computer science we are taking about here. Embrace managed ambiguity. When you have countless uncontrollable variables that’s the best you can do.

    “More generally, since Keith and yourself are so adept at coming up with explanations for any rhetoric and policy, no matter what public opinion is, your claims that elected government is responsive – at any level or any configuration – become unfalsifiable.”

    Fair enough. I have, however, been consistent in pointing out that the US government is an exceptionally poor example to use. One can not argue that if the US government is unresponsive then elected regimes must by nature be unresponsive. That just doesn’t follow. Everyone agrees that the US government is dysfunctional. You should be looking at the best examples of elected governments. Your arguments – if they are still valid – would carry more weight.

    “Yet the case discussed here – that of lobbying regulation – is diametrically different to your description. In this case there is wide a consensus among voters about desired policy to which politicians of neither party are responding”

    Why, pray tell, would politicians take up an issue if they know full well they will be unsuccessful?

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  24. So, just one comment ago you wrote that whenever median opinion shifts, politicians respond. Now, it turns out, median opinion doesn’t determine policies since what matters is some ephemeral ingredient called “salience”.

    Again, this is not a theory of electoral responsiveness. This is unfalsifiable dogma.

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  25. So you think that politicians will adjust their policies in line with public opinion over issues that the public finds unimportant (and will ignore issues that the public deems to be important)? Why would they do that? Salience is hardly “ephemeral”, it’s just the commonsense observation that some issues are deemed to be more important than others. One of the criticisms of the Gilens and Page paper was that salience was not controlled for — it may well be that the minority of cases when policy outcomes departed from median-voter preference were issues that voters did not hold to be highly salient.

    Although I agree with Naomi on most things I would take issue with the claim that the US political system is unresponsive. In fact it’s hyperresponsive to median voter opinion — when opinion is evenly divided between the two political poles the response is to do nothing at all. This may well be dysfunctional, but it’s not unresponsive — it’s the response of Buridan’s Ass.

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  26. >This is unfalsifiable dogma.

    PS the median-voter hypothesis is entirely data-driven — to confirm or refute it you need perform a correlation analysis between public opinion polls and policy outcomes, ensuring that salience is a key variable.

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  27. > So you think that politicians will adjust their policies in line with public opinion over issues that the public finds unimportant

    That is your position – “politicians follow median opinion”. No qualifications are attached.

    Indeed, if politicians care only for votes, why does it matter how important an issue is? If all they try to do is please voters, politicians will align with the median opinion no matter how trivial the issue is.

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  28. >Indeed, if politicians care only for votes, why does it matter how important an issue is?

    Because politicians will only gain votes if the issue is important (otherwise voters won’t even notice).

    >If all they try to do is please voters, politicians will align with the median opinion no matter how trivial the issue is.

    If the issue is trivial then they won’t gain any Brownie Points at all. Real-world political life involves complex trade offs, in which salience and preference are important variables. All I can do is quote Naomi on this:

    “Don’t be too eager to jump to the most extreme generalization possible. There are far too many variables at play. This isn’t physical or computer science we are taking about here. Embrace managed ambiguity. When you have countless uncontrollable variables that’s the best you can do.”

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  29. Naomi,

    >> ”This argument is generic. If we believe it then any piece of legislation becomes a no-win issue with the voters and therefore something that should be avoided.”
    > Not at all. He ran as an outsider. Talking like a policy wonk would not have fit his narrative. Different people, different strategies.

    You are now introducing various specifics, but your original argument was generic and straightforward:

    > Trying to push a formal proposal would have committed him to defending the nitty-gritty details of that proposal and he gets bogged down in discussing superfluous policy details no one cares about FAR too easily.

    No mention of being an outsider and having to maintain a particular image.

    In any case, this is just another example of the way you are willing to introduce an unlimited number of ad hoc arguments in order to salvage your position regardless of the evidence.

    > There are far too many variables at play. This isn’t physical or computer science we are taking about here. Embrace managed ambiguity. When you have countless uncontrollable variables that’s the best you can do.

    Every empirical theory, in any field, leaves some variance unexplained. The point is that the model you are advocating (“median voter theorem”), to the extent it creates any expectations about the facts, is wrong. It explains no part of the observations.

    > I have, however, been consistent in pointing out that the US government is an exceptionally poor example to use.

    Well, when I offered Israel as an example you eliminated Israel as well as being another extreme.

    In any case, eliminating the US has the unfortunate effect of eliminating the most well documented and well studied test case and despite the fact that I invited you to do so, you have not offered any other useful alternative test cases and any systematic way of telling which electoral systems can be expected to be good examples.

    > Why, pray tell, would politicians take up an issue if they know full well they will be unsuccessful?

    Unsuccessful in what way? Again, the prediction of the model you are advocating is that politicians will match their actions – rhetoric and policy – to the median opinion. Now you are introducing various ad hoc excuses when a counter-example is offered. You either have to show that the counter example is a statistical exception or modify your model to exclude those cases which are not covered by it. You have done neither.

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  30. > Because politicians will only gain votes if the issue is important

    Why? All else being equal, voters would prefer those politicians who match their opinions on any given issue.

    In any case, again, you are now advocating against the very model you so earnestly offered a few comment ago. The “median opinion” model asserts that in an electoral system politicians will try to match median opinion on all matters, not on a particular subset.

    Again, you seem completely at ease introducing – and then un-introducing – ad hoc fixes to models you advocate as the rhetorical need arises. This is not the discussion manner of someone who is seeking to honestly understand something. It is the manner of dogmatists and propagandists.

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  31. Yoram, politics takes place in the messy world of empirical human beings (“countless uncontrollable variables”, in Naomi’s words), and the role of political theorists is to make some sense of the structural constraints on human behaviour. You appear to be taking the opposite approach — you start with a theory and then expect human agents to match its predictions in every instance. Most voters are not particularly interested in politics and will only pay attention to issues that they deem to be salient, and usually take heuristic shortcuts when matching their preferences to the choices available. Voters would, indeed, be very surprised to find a political party that was able to match their opinions on every issue, particularly in highly polarised societies like the US.

    >The “median opinion” model asserts that in an electoral system politicians will try to match median opinion on all matters, not on a particular subset.

    Not so, it merely indicates the constraints imposed by a two-party electoral system. These constraints apply more strongly when the issue in question is deemed by voters to be highly salient. For less salient issues politicians are not constrained to follow median-voter preferences and may even be tempted to follow their own judgment (which may, or may not, correspond with the judgment of the rich and powerful).

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  32. > For less salient issues politicians are not constrained to follow median-voter preferences and may even be tempted to follow their own judgment

    I am shocked at this heresy. You are shamelessly accusing elected politicians of deviating from median voter opinion and doing as they want with their power.

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  33. Yes, and I included the phrase in parentheses in order to increase your sense of shock, as you seem to view political theory as adherence to one or another of a series of creeds (hence your charge of heresy). My aims are altogether more modest — introducing a little conceptual clarity into our understanding of the way that political institutions (such as competitive elections) function. Moreover, unlike the rational choice theorists who devised the median-voter theorem, I don’t believe that human agents (including politicians) simply seek to maximise advantage, we are also creatures of principle. So when the opportunity presents itself (i.e. issues of low salience to voters) politicians may even attempt to do the right thing.

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  34. >an unlimited number of ad hoc arguments

    Come to think of it, this is a pretty good description of political life (“Events, dear boy, events” as Harold Macmillan [allegedly] put it; “countless uncontrollable variables”, in Naomi’s words). Determinate laws and predictive models tightly constrain the options available to political actors but, as in all forms of human behaviour, contingent and “ad hoc” factors play a hugely important role, however much that may perturb the neat deterministic models dreamed up those who seek to explain the messy domain of political behaviour via single “scientific” principles (historical determinism, rational choice theory, immutable interests or whatever).

    The task of the political scientists is to reduce the countless uncontrollable variables to the point that reliable predictions can be made, but the notion that it could ever be a single variable (class interests, median-voter preferences, or whatever) is scientistic fantasy. However I do think a two variable model (median preferences + saliency) can provide a reasonably robust description of political behaviour in hyper-responsive two-party systems like the US — an examination of recent UK coalition politics indicates how the model fails when applied to a three-party system. And the Gilens and Page paper shows the folly of not including issue saliency as one of the variables.

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  35. […] the non-responsiveness on the matters of delegate salaries and lobbying regulation, the non-responsiveness regarding income inequality contradicts the standard electoralist dogma […]

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