How to start draining the lobbyist swamp

Yglesias, commenting on Nancy Scola’s post about legislators outsourcing their thinking to lobbyists, notes that  “A member of congress only has so much money to spend on staff.”

Think about how nuts this is. So far as I know, the Supreme Court and other federal courts have no lack of clerks – we’ve decided that having federal judges adequately and independently informed about the laws they interpret is worth spending the tax dollars. And I also doubt the executive branch is really suffering from a lack of money for people who can advise the White House on what policies it should pursue. But for some reason, we insist on a system that so underfunds congresscritters that they need to turn to private lobbyists for policy advice on important issues of the day.

I can see the usefulness of not having to retain staff to bone up on the more trivial issues that come in front of Congress, like today’s random resolutions to commend IBM or express support for School Social Work Week. But things like the environment, defense, health care, taxes? The mind boggles at the idea that there are some congresspeople that think these things aren’t important enough to justify getting independent information. Well, some Democrats, anyway. I’m pretty sure most Republicans know the name of the game they’re playing at this point.

My thought is that if it’s unfeasible to expand congressional staff to fill this role, the parties should position themselves as the first go-to for these kinds of things. It might actually help restore a vague sense of, I don’t know, discipline among the Democrats.  And failing that (or maybe in addition), I don’t see why we shouldn’t have regional blocs of hired wonks so legislators with similar interests and preferences can share the costs of getting this advice.

In the comments, a former House staffer notes some of the reasons we don’t have a better system. They range from the understandable-but-suboptimal (there isn’t enough money; some initiatives move through Congress too quickly to build expertise on the relevant issues) to the venal (the lobbyist campaign contribution is going to inevitably distort things by giving special interests at least a seat at the table no matter what) to the completely absurd (a Capitol office has insufficient space to fit all the staff a House member should have). It’s 2010. At the very least, can’t we rent out some cheap office space in Arlington and have a poor, low-paid, but independent flunky videoconferencing in when he/she needs to brief the member about his/her issue?

UPDATE: I’ve changed the title of this post, which, regardless of any lexical issues with the word “flack” (see comments), had the additional virtue of not making any sense anyway.

    • Lisa
    • March 9th, 2010

    More centralized wonkery makes perfect sense to me: it’s not expensive work — just time-consuming.

    One nit to pick: ‘flack’ generally means a campaign or politician’s spokesperson. Seemed like you were using it to refer to lobbyists.

  1. I was using the term more in the context of being short for any publicity shop. Is there really that big a gulf between what a lobbyist does and what your average big political PR firm does? After all, that’s one revolving door that’s very well lubricated. For instance:

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