WASHINGTON — A recovering lobbyist once told me a story about how he did his job. He said he would sometimes stand outside of a committee room before a hearing, and when a friendly member of Congress would walk by, he’d slip them some talking points to use in the hearing. Then he’d walk inside the hearing room, take his seat in the gallery, and watch as those talking points were spouted by the elected officials and put into the official record.
It’s an extreme example of an all-too-familiar phenomenon in Washington: Powerful industries and their well-paid lobbyists press their case with lawmakers and, over time, those lawmakers come to rely on the technical expertise and perspectives of the industries they oversee to make legislative decisions. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) puts it, “Today, members of Congress don’t have access to the latest science and evidence, and lobbyists working for corporate clients are quick to fill this vacuum and bend the ears of members of Congress to advance their own narrow interests.”
The newest plan rolled out by Warren’s presidential campaign is meant to shift the expertise back to Congress and the federal government and to wean lawmakers off of industry-funded research and talking points.
In “Strengthening Congressional Independence from Corporate Lobbyists,” Warren calls for reviving the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, increasing funding for the Congressional Research Service and making salaries for Capitol Hill staffers more competitive to attract subject-matter experts who might otherwise go work in the private sector.
In her announcement, Warren recounts the 2010 legislative battle to reform Wall Street and create a consumer-protection bureau. She describes how the bank lobbyists “bombarded the members of Congress with complex arguments filled with obscure terms,” seeking to swamp lawmakers and their staffers with jargon and technical language in an effort to water down regulations aimed at preventing the next Wall Street crash. “While a big part of the problem is a broken campaign finance system, members of Congress aren’t just dependent on corporate lobbyist propaganda because they’re bought and paid for,” Warren explains. “It’s also because of a successful, decades-long campaign to starve Congress of the resources and expertise needed to independently evaluate complex public policy questions.”
Warren’s three-part plan would reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment, which supplied Congress with nonpartisan, forward-looking reports and guidance on issues related to technology and science. Created in 1972, the OTA was long a popular resource for members of Congress but fell victim to the Newt Gingrich-led Republican majority in 1995. “In OTA’s absence,” Chris Mooney later wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “the new Republican majority could freely call upon its own favorable scientific ‘experts’ and rely upon more questionable and self-interested analyses prepared by lobbyists, think tanks, and interest groups.” Warren, for her part, writes that if the OTA had survived Gingrich’s purge, “it would have provided Congress with a vital resource to counter the disinformation peddled by the fossil fuel industry and climate change deniers.”
In recent years, former members of Congress have called for reopening the OTA. “The House should modernize technology and improve the effectiveness of government,” Tim Roemer, a former Indiana congressman, testified in May. “We can’t have staff and members that don’t know how Google and Facebook and WhatsApp and different huge companies operate today.”
Warren’s new plan also calls for the creation of a Lobbying Defense Trust Fund, funded by a tax on “excessive lobbying.” The money generated by that tax would support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service, Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office, which performs audits, investigations and oversight. She notes that between 1975 and 2015, those organizations have lost nearly half their combined staff.
Finally, Warren proposes making congressional staff jobs better-paid by putting them on the same salary tracks as federal employees serving in executive branch agencies like the Treasury Department or the EPA “to attract and retain committed, hard-working public servants from diverse backgrounds.”
The plan is just the latest plank in Warren’s suite of anti-corruption proposals, a centerpiece of her presidential run. Breaking the “grip” of lobbyists on policymaking in DC, she says, “will also ensure that members of Congress acting in good faith do not recite talking points from the very companies trying to avoid regulations — and that members of Congress acting in bad faith can’t get away with parroting industry disinformation.”