Lobbyists: Not as Bad as You Think

The public generally regards lobbyists are shills for big-money interests, but their expertise can actually help lawmakers craft effective policy.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

There tends to be a lot of negative public sentiment on the idea of lobbyists. These paid positions, designed to sway government decisions, are often seen as biased representations of big firms using money to favour interests. For many, big banks and the tobacco industry are amongst of the first to come to mind.

However, this isn’t the main intention behind lobbying. Legislation is a complex issue, and lobbying can bring in perspectives not only from the private sector, but also from public interests. Legislators are not always experts in the areas where they need to make decisions. Lobbyists help close that gap, conveying information that could help bridge the gap between science or social impact and policy.

While big firms can have big budgets, dollar for dollar, their lobbying efforts tend to fall short of lobbying by true experts. Matilde Bombardini, a fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, looks at the data behind lobbying in the United States, and finds that credibility is a big factor in influencing policy.

Bombardini’s studies show that expertise and credibility make politicians more likely to listen to particular lobbyists, regardless of political background.

She also found that trade associations, which have more broad interests than individual firms, tend to carry more weight. “The politician may find it easier to make a concession on policy if it’s demanded by a wide group, sort of a more industry based group rather than individual firm. So these actually tend to be more effective; in the end it’s not completely true that if you have a firm by itself lobbying they get whatever they want,” says Bombardini.

Even when it comes to financial regulation, she found that small banks and non-profits representing people who rely on low-income housing could still have influence and help shape regulations.

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Professor Matilde Bombardini is an Associate Professor in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, a Fellow in the Institutions, Organizations and Growth Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a Research Associate in the Political Economy Program of the National Bureau of Economic Analysis and Co-Editor of the Canadian Journal of Economics.

Her research covers various aspects of International Trade and Political Economy. In particular she has worked on the link between skill distribution and comparative advantage, the lobbying decision of firms and the behavior of lobbyists.

She obtained her PhD in 2005 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her undergraduate degree from the University of Bologna in Italy.