Revolving Door Lobbying

Public Service, Private Influence, and the Unequal Representation of Interests

Timothy LaPira & Herschel F. Thomas III

In recent decades Washington has seen an alarming rise in the number of “revolving door lobbyists”—politicians and officials cashing in on their government experience to become influence peddlers on K Street. These lobbyists, popular wisdom suggests, sell access to the highest bidder. Revolving Door Lobbying tells a different, more nuanced story. As an insider interviewed in the book observes, where the general public has the “impression that lobbyists actually get things done, I would say 90 percent of what lobbyists do is prevent harm to their client from the government.”

Drawing on extensive new data on lobbyists’ biographies and interviews with dozens of experts, authors Timothy M. LaPira and Herschel F. Thomas establish the facts of the revolving door phenomenon—facts that suggest that, contrary to widespread assumptions about insider access, special interests hire these lobbyists as political insurance against an increasingly dysfunctional, unpredictable government. With their insider experience, revolving door lobbyists offer insight into the political process, irrespective of their connections to current policymakers. What they provide to their clients is useful and marketable political risk-reduction. Exploring this claim, LaPira and Thomas present a systematic analysis of who revolving door lobbyists are, how they differ from other lobbyists, what interests they represent, and how they seek to influence public policy.

“LaPira and Thomas deftly bring much-needed nuance and depth to our understanding of lobbying. They persuasively explain how Congress’s own decisions to cut internal capacity and centralize power in leadership fueled the expansion of the revolving door, and they demonstrate why most lobbying is designed to prevent Congress from taking action. Revolving Door Lobbying is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the real reasons why Washington stopped working, and why those with resources to hire the best lobbyists keep winning, even without having to bribe anybody.”

—Lee Drutman, author of The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate

“In this, the most comprehensive single assessment of Washington’s “revolving door” system by which underpaid government staffers move to the private sector to influence their former colleagues, Thomas and LaPira debunk a number of myths. Most importantly, they document the different worlds of “substantive” and “procedural” lobbyists, and the different values that each bring to their clients, and to the government. They push us to recenter our debates about the values and deficiencies of our lobbying system toward the system itself, not the individuals involved in it. The vast bulk of the problems associated with how we lobby in Washington are associated with what interests are over- and under-represented there, not in what individual lobbyists do or try to do. As they write, no single lobbyist, like no single government official, can make Washington turn on a dime; the system is too decentralized for that. But collectively, the massive biases and inequities that determine who is “at the table” versus who is “on the menu” in Washington make this book a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the system really works, based on data, not anecdotes.”

—Frank R. Baumgartner, author of Lobbying and Policy Change and co-director of the Policy Agendas Project

The first book to marshal comprehensive evidence of revolving door lobbying, LaPira and Thomas revise the notion that lobbyists are inherently and institutionally corrupt. Rather, the authors draw a complex and sobering picture of the revolving door as a consequence of the eroding capacity of government to solve the publics problems.

About the Author

Timothy M. LaPira is associate professor of political science at James Madison University. Herschel F. Thomas is assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Additional Titles in the Studies in Government and Public Policy Series