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This is the real way big business peddles influence in Washington

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David Dayen has an article at the Intercept about Google's close relationship with the Obama administration that offers an important look at how relatively unimportant the much-discussed question of campaign contributions is. Google staff, for example, made $3.8 million in campaign contributions in the 2014 election cycle on top of $3.4 million in the 2012 cycle. But this is dwarfed in both quantity and efficacy by spending on other forms of direct and indirect influence.

[Google] spent $16.7 million in lobbying in 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and has been at or near the top of public companies in lobbying expenses since 2012.

But direct expenditures on lobbying represent only one part of the larger influence-peddling game. Google’s lobbying strategy also includes throwing lavish D.C. parties; making grants to trade groups, advocacy organizations, and think tanks; offering free services and training to campaigns, congressional offices, and journalists; and using academics as validators for the company’s public policy positions.

And then:

In just the past few years, Google has provided diplomatic assistance to the administration through expanding internet access in Cuba; collaborated with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring Google Fiber into public housing; used Google resources to monitor droughts in real time; and even captured 360-degree views of White House interiors.

The administration has also relied on many ex-Googlers to help create the US Digital Service which, naturally, further collaborates with Google on certain technical problems.

This represents several distinct channels of influence-peddling:

  • Google's views on policy issues are simply well-known and well-understood by relevant people in Washington thanks to the fact that they are able to spend a lot of money on making them well-known and well-understood.
  • Google's civically minded work helps make it well-regarded among the general public, so that policy initiatives that have an upside for Google (like unlocking television set-top boxes) play as smart politics in a way that's not the case for widely hated cable companies.
  • Google is well-regarded in Washington policy circles both inside and outside the government, so influential people are predisposed to hear them out fairly on contentious issues.
  • Google is genuinely useful to people in the government who are genuinely trying to do good things, which cultivates the mentality that a strong and globally competitive Google is good for the United States of America. It may even be true!

Here I'll confess that a few years back I had breakfast with a Google lobbyist at Google's office. I didn't even intend to let a lobbyist buy me breakfast (which I wouldn't normally do), I was just stopping by her office to talk.

But it's not unusual to accept a cup of coffee or a glass of water or whatever when you're visiting someone's office, and Google's office just happens to have a chef who'll make you an omelet, so next thing you know there was Google buying me breakfast.

Am I going to throw out my integrity as a journalist for the sake of an omelet? Obviously not. But is it possible that getting some free tasty food by surprise puts you in a good mood and subtly leaves you more susceptible to influence? I'd like to think not. But research shows that judges in criminal trials hand down harsher sentences while they're hungry, so I don't want to categorically rule out the idea that I was swayed.

The good news, from an Intercept point of view, is that the main thing we talked about was the Intercept-friendly point that US government surveillance of the internet was potentially a huge business problem for US-based technology companies. Substantively, I was already inclined to look askance at surveillance programs. But now, thanks to this smart and helpful lobbyist, I had another good argument about why I should look askance at them. Win-win!

The point is: Money really does talk in Washington.

But especially for big players, campaign contributions aren't the main voice. Anyone can write a check. Mounting a multi-pronged persuasion campaign aimed at targeting an array of stakeholders, in part by taking advantage of years of diffusely accumulated good will, is much harder and more expensive.