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The real reason Silicon Valley can't win in Washington

Can't buy me love. Or policy change.
Can't buy me love. Or policy change.
Mandel Ngan/Getty

Tony Romm wrote an interesting story over the weekend about Silicon Valley's frustrations at the lack of progress on the high tech industry's main policy priorities. John Boehner has immigration reform all tied up, Pat Leahy's killed patent reform, and the House passed a fig leaf surveillance reform bill that neither privacy advocates nor giant technology firms care for. Romm notes that this is particularly disappointing for the Googles and Facebooks and Microsofts of the world because the high-tech industry "recently ramped up its work in Washington" and "accounted for $35 million in lobbying spending during the first three months of 2014" after a long period when tech firms shied away from investing in lobbying. 

What Silicon Valley is learning is that even though money talks in Washington, it's incredibly difficult to shout down the din of status quo bias. In other words, if you want to make change happen in congress you're probably going to lose — no matter how much you spend.

That's the message of Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why by Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David Kimball, and Beth Leech based on the most comprehensive study of lobbying campaigns in recent American politics. The authors looked at concerted efforts to change federal policy, and found that 60 percent of the time they failed. They found that if you're trying to change things, it's better to have a lot of money behind you than a little money but only if the gap in resources is truly gigantic — something they find happened just 19 percent of the time.

On most issues there's at least some meaningful money on both sides — patent reform, for example, pits technology companies against pharmaceutical companies and some lawyers — and one bloc of businesses trying to outspend another doesn't work very well.

Again, this isn't so much because the political process is a wonderland of integrity as it is that change is simply very difficult.

We made a video about how difficult change is.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill that technology companies, among others, have been pushing for is a case in point. This is an example where the financial resources are quite tilted in favor of the pro-reform side. And it shows in the fact that almost uniquely among major Obama administration initiatives there are some Republican backers of reform. Back in 2013, 68 Senators — including 14 Republicans — voted for a bill. And all signs are that a majority of House members would vote yes on a similar bill were it to come to the floor for a vote.

But so far it hasn't come to the floor, because support from a majority of House members isn't good enough to pass a bill. For a bill to come to the floor, most members of the Republican caucus have to want it to come to the floor. If they don't want it to come to the floor, the Speaker will keep it off.

All interest groups of any kind face the same basic problem. All the money in the world doesn't change the fact that in America the status quo usually wins.

Technology companies' particular problem is that since the companies we're talking about tend to be relative new, they don't have a back catalog of past victories to hang their hat on. Pharma has been with us a long time, so status quo patent policy largely reflects their interests. As the new kids on the block, Google and Facebook often come to the Capitol asking for change and change is not something they're good at delivering on the Hill. The record shows that high-tech is about as good as anyone at playing defense. When Hollywood was pushing for a tech-unfriendly Stop Online Piracy Act in 2011, they were ultimately defeated. Having the status quo on your side is a nearly priceless advantage.

The good news for America's tech billionaires is that at least their complaints with the status quo get heard. That's where money really matters. If you don't have any, your ideas don't get on the agenda — which is why we rarely see articles about why congress hasn't seen fit to abolish child poverty or drastically improve urban bus service. It's obvious why — poor children and bus riders don't have any money so nobody cares. By contrast lots of people on the Hill care about high-tech's problems. That's why we have bills that fail rather than bills that don't get written at all.

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