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Why 2017 will bring a lobbying bonanza to Washington

There will be loads of unpredictability and chaos. And lobbyists make big bucks from unpredictability and chaos

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to workers at Carrier air conditioning and heating on December 1, 2016, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
President-elect Donald Trump speaks to workers at Carrier air conditioning and heating on December 1, 2016, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Over the past few days, we've gained two important insights into how President Donald Trump will make economic and foreign policy decisions.

First, we learned that Trump will target and bully individual companies based on his whims. In addition to his public cowing of Carrier, we now have his promise that he will seek "retribution" for "any business that leaves our country for another country, fires its employees, [or] builds a new factory or plant in the other country" (things companies do all the time). There's also his mercurial tweet promising to cancel the next Air Force One order from Boeing, which shocked investors.

We have also learned that if you hire the right lobbyist, you can get Trump to break with four decades of diplomatic precedent. By hiring Bob Dole as its lobbyist, the government of Taiwan got privileged access to Trump's inner circle, which set the stage for his controversial phone call with Taiwan's leader.

What these developments have in common is that they signal that precedent or rule of law is no longer a guide to policy. It doesn't matter how things used to be done or what the law says. As Rep. Peter King (R-NY) put it, "What Donald Trump is doing is he's sending a signal that there is a new sheriff in town and he's going to do it his way."

In other words, anything and everything is now on the table — and as the old Washington adage goes, "If you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu."

And in Washington, the way to get a seat at the table is to hire well-connected lobbyists. Like, say, Bob Dole.

For companies, having a big presence in Washington has always been important. And as I described in my book on corporate lobbying, The Business of America Is Lobbying, corporations have come to overwhelm Washington over the past four decades, investing ever-greater sums into shaping public policy.

In my book, I warned of these ever-expanding investments:

Companies now devote massive resources to politics, and their large-scale involvement increasingly re-directs and constricts the capacities of the political system. The consequence is a democracy that is increasingly unable to tackle large-scale problems, and a political economy that too often rewards lobbying over innovation.

In a Trump administration, I fear these problems will only get worse. By both threatening individual companies and signaling that everything is up for grabs, he sends a clear message to every single company and foreign government: Send your lobbyists to Washington to make nice with me. If I don't like you, I'm coming after you. And if you hire the right lobbyists, I will shower great rewards on you.

As Larry Summers has convincingly argued, this is no way to run economy policy: "This is the world of New York City under Tammany Hall, of Suharto's Indonesia, and of Putin's Russia."

So much for "draining the swamp."

As I've already written, Trump's specific "drain the swamp" proposals — hiring freezes for the federal workforce, term limits for Congress, and a few cosmetic lobbying bans — will do nothing to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests. More likely, by reducing the capacity of government to develop expertise independent of lobbyists, it will actually make Washington more dependent on private lobbyists.

But perhaps, in responding to specific policy proposals, I was making the common mistake of taking Trump too literally. Perhaps, instead, if we are to take Trump seriously, we need to pay more attention to his actions than his proposals.

And his actions tell us that every business and foreign government better get down to Washington and make nice. Because if it doesn't hire the right lobbyists, it could be next.

Boeing, which spends about $20 million a year on reported lobbying, will probably be fine. Its 86 registered lobbyists have plenty of friends in Washington, and can surely secure a meeting with Trump to patch things up and clear up any misunderstandings. But not every company has such a big Washington footprint.

There is also a more banal reason to expect a lobbying boom in 2017. For the first time since 2010, when total reported lobbying spending hit a record high of $3.5 billion, there is now unified government. Since 2011, when divided government–induced gridlock set in, reported lobbying expenditures have dropped steadily, falling to $3.2 billion in 2015.

This changes now that Republicans have unified control. A whole lot more is now potentially on the table: the Affordable Care Act; Dodd-Frank; a major infrastructure bill. If Congress takes up all three (or even just one), thousands of companies and other interests will want to make sure they have a prime seat at the table.

All this adds up to a simple prediction: For Washington lobbyists, 2017 promises to be a great year for business. There will be loads of unpredictability and chaos.

And lobbyists make big bucks from unpredictability and chaos. Even if their clients don't.

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