What does a coronavirus relief bill have to do with a Ritz Carlton? It's all about the lobbyists.

In Washington, crisis is cash for lobbyists, who use last minute legislation to win perks. The pandemic was no exception.
The Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe
The Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe.Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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By Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America

As Congress rushed to finalize a $2 billion coronavirus stimulus bill in March, something familiar happened. The lobbyists swarmed. Now we know just how large that pack was: At least 1,571 unique lobbying organizations reported lobbying on that bill, boosting the 2020 first quarter lobbying spending to $903 million –- a near record.

Some of that spending helped the National Restaurant Association and the International Franchise Association get a special carve out in the small-business lending program. Now chain restaurants qualify for help -– so long as they had at least 500 employees per location. Hotel chains also got a benefit; but, unsatisfied, now they are lobbying further. Airline lobbyists succeeded in getting a last-minute gutting of pay protections for airline workers. Hospital lobbyists smothered a provision that would have protected patients from surprise billing.

In the rare moments when Congress passes something big, thousands of lobbyists are there to cash in on relationships they’ve carefully cultivated over years of steady attention.

These weren't about small inns or local mom-n-pop delis either. The Associated Press reported, for example, that chains connected to Texas hotel tycoon Monty Bennett -- including the Ashford Hospitality Trust, which has both the W and Ritz Carlton Atlanta, and the luxury Braemar Hotels & Resorts collection which lists Key West's Pier House and Ritz Carlton Sarasota among it's holdings -- asked for $126 million in loans and picked up $69 million in the final bill.

This should surprise no one. The frantic coronavirus stimulus lobbying scrum is just another installment in a now-standard pattern: In the rare moments when Congress passes something big, thousands of lobbyists are there to cash in on relationships they’ve carefully cultivated over years of steady wooing. And since Washington lobbyists disproportionately represent business, most of the benefits inevitably flow to corporations.

The tale of lobbyists overwhelming legislators should by now be familiar because it’s the same special favor-seeking throng that pounces every time Congress takes up major economic legislation. It’s the story of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a “giant present to the tax lobbying community,” in the words of one former Senate tax aide turned lobbyist, that cut taxes tremendously for corporations while barely changing individual tax rates. Lobbyists piled in, wrote key provisions, and the staffers who led the process cashed out later. It’s the story of the 2014 must-pass so-called “Cromnibus” legislation pushed through to keep the government open, during which Wall Street lobbyists used the must-pass $1 trillion spending bill to cut loose regulations, food lobbyists undermined school nutrition guidelines, and more. It’s the narrative of the Hurricane Sandy relief bill of 2013, another fast-moving train of federal spending and support that industry lobbyists piled onto.

In ordinary times, we shake our heads at the broken process with proper, if ultimately limited, indignation, but then move on. It all seems so Washington, so “swampy,” to borrow the adjective politicians like to pejoratively throw at the capital, and yet what can we do about it? Politics is politics, after all.

But moments of genuine crisis heighten our collective sense of right and wrong. We expect everyone to pitch in, to sacrifice for the greater good. We demand more. Everyone needs economic help right now. How can we ensure that everyone gets it, equally and fairly?

We are continuing to learn about narrowly targeted goodies snuck into the CARES Act, many will be initially obscured by unclear and intentionally vague legislative language, and who put them there. We will almost certainly learn that key provisions were written and/or suggested by lobbyists, dropped in by friendly lawmakers only to pass unnoticed in the voting scramble. But will any of this knowledge change anything?

As a country we are now asking big questions about the preparedness and resiliency of our health care system, for example, and whether its excessive focus on efficiency and profitability undermined the capacity to handle a crisis. We should also be asking similar questions about our government’s policy response capacity. Most of our attention has focused on the White House for understandable reasons — President Donald Trump’s volatile whims have been deeply consequential.

Congress is a much more of a complex institution. But it is here that the question of long-term capacity becomes most relevant.

Over the last several decades, the power of private lobbyists to shape and direct legislation has grown steadily.

Over the last several decades, the power of private lobbyists to shape and direct legislation has grown steadily, in large part because Congress has de-invested in its own internal policy capacity. Congress now has fewer staff than it did in 1980, both through atrophy and active cutting of the kind that Newt Gingrich undertook when he centralized power as House speaker in 1995. As salaries in Washington have increased, especially in the private lobbying and law sectors, Congress has offered comparatively less money and demanded longer, more unpredictable, hours from fewer staffers. The result is that congressional staff careers are short, turnover is high, and most of the policy expertise in Washington resides outside of Congress, a large share of it in the pay of private industry. That means that in the rare moments when Congress does do major legislation, the just-in-time bill manufacturing capacity comes from the private sector, which is only too happy to provide it.

Meanwhile, as increased partisan polarization has rendered Congress frequently gridlocked, fewer legislation passes or even gets debated. When Congress legislates now, it legislates more and more in sudden, last-minute bursts. A town full of private lobbyists readies itself for these occasional moments, knowing that the doors open only occasionally, and those who have already built up the relationships will get first crack. And when there’s a mad scramble to pass a bill, it’s easy for friendly language to make it in without much scrutiny.

How might a more functional, less lobbyist-driven Congress operate? For one, Congress would invest much more in its own expertise and staff capacity, both adding more positions and increasing pay, to ensure that all the staffers who ultimately compile the bills have enough experience and knowledge to think for themselves, and don’t outsource everything to their favorite outside interests. Or, if they must outsource in a pinch, at least they will have the know-how to evaluate what’s fair and what’s not to include. For another, Congress would address more issues through regular committee hearings and mark-ups, a more decentralized process that would allow more competing interests to work through their conflicts, and not leave every demand for the occasional must-pass omnibus. A more bottom-up Congress could go part of the way toward reducing some of the polarization in Congress, especially if paired with other reforms to drain some of the zero-sum fighting out of our hyperpartisan politics, like ranked-choice voting.

The potential good news here is the House is now in its second year of running a “modernization committee” to make Congress work a little better. The Senate should follow the House’s lead here. There is much more work to do. Now is the time to reevaluate how all our essential societal institutions function. That includes our government.