There is a profound degree of skepticism in some libertarian circles about the merits of direct engagement with legislators to influence public policy.  The narrative goes something like this:

Politicians only care about one thing—getting reelected.  Everything they do, including how they vote, is a means to that end.  Only if one can make certain votes more politically attractive to legislators (or, correspondingly, certain votes politically unattractive) can one influence public policy.


There are only three ways that one might effect the political calculus that legislators undertake to determine positions on issues:


  • Provide campaign contributions;
  • Marshal an army of grassroots activists; or
  • Change public opinion in their districts

Policy advocates need to be prepared to do at least one of those three things if they hope to influence the legislators they talk to.  If they can do none of those three things, they are wasting their time.

At first blush, this argument—let’s call it the “carrot & stick theory”—seems compellingly clear-eyed and no-nonsense. But once you begin talking to legislative staffers, elected politicians, professional lobbyists, and the academics who study these matters for a living, the narrative begins to fall apart.  They offer six reasons why legislators pay attention to what policy advocates have to say … even if those advocates aren’t giving out campaign contributions or deploying grassroots armies:

1.  Issue advocacy organizations are political barometers for elected officials. It is sometimes unclear to politicians whether a prospective policy change will prove salable to important constituencies. To the extent that issue advocacy groups represent the perspective of constituencies politicians care about, their attitudes toward proposed policy changes provide useful information about how various voting blocks may react to prospective legislation. Moreover, given that public opinion is driven by elite cues, support from well-respected advocacy organizations assists politicians in mobilizing support or neutralizing opposition to policy changes.

2.  Issue advocacy organizations are wellsprings of fresh, attractive, well-vetted reform ideas and policy innovations. Politicians value new, attractive policy ideas because they have utility in political campaigns and because—believe it or not—some politicians actually got into this business to improve public policy. But it takes knowledge, intellect, creativity, and time to produce good policy ideas. There are, after all, only so many Daniel Patrick Moynihans in American politics. As one prominent political science textbook puts it:

Congress seldom initiates changes to public policy. Instead, it responds to policy proposals initiated by the president, executive, and interested nongovernmental elites. The congressional role in national decision making is usually deliberative: Congress responds to policies initiated by others.

Issue advocacy organizations are organized, first and foremost, to produce politically attractive policy ideas, and they have done that job so well that politicians frequently outsource policymaking to friendly issue advocacy organizations.

3.  Issue advocacy organizations are the main sources of policy-relevant academic work in Washington. Issue advocacy analysts render academic theories, scientific paradigms, and peer reviewed empirical work digestible for non-academics, prime that work in a manner most useful to policymakers, and engage in the intellectually demanding, labor-intensive process of sorting the good academic work from the bad, the policy relevant work from the esoteric, and the politically friendly research from the unfriendly. Strong academic work is useful for politicians because it is a powerful source of political ammunition and, moreover, steers legislators clear of bad ideas that might do them discredit.

4.  Issue advocacy organizations save policymakers a tremendous amount of time. Neither legislators nor their staff have the time to comprehensively research the topics they must address. By marshaling large, interdisciplinary, full-time research teams, issue advocacy groups provide useful, reliable, policy-relevant research and analysis to political actors.

5.  Issue advocacy organizations influence the governing networks that inform political decision making. There are a nearly infinite number of ideas that might conceivably find their way onto the menu of policy alternatives that legislators choose from in the course of deciding how best to advance their pet causes. The initial task of winnowing out the good or politically viable ideas from the bad or politically impractical is primarily undertaken, not by legislators or their staff, but by Washington insiders fully engaged in the issue at hand. Issue advocacy organizations are among the most influential players in the capital’s relevant “policy streams.” Accordingly, they play a major role in deciding what is on the policy menu and what is not.

6.  Issue advocacy organizations provide intellectual cover for politicians to do what they want to do anyway. It is not easy to sell a policy agenda based on the naked argument that some politically important constituency or organized special interest will gain by it. It is much easier to sell that same policy agenda if it can be packaged as a high-minded initiative that advances the common good. Policy advocates provide cover to politicians in that regard by providing arguments and narratives which—even if not persuasive to experts—are persuasive enough to neutralize the stronger arguments of the opposition and create enough policy doubt so as to make the cover narrative politically plausible. In short, there is a political demand for high-minded policy narratives and policy advocacy groups meet that demand.

While we at the Niskanen Center aspire to more than “giving like-minded politicos arguments they want to hear,” even slavish devotion to such a narrow and desultory mission gives policy advocates some degree of real power. How? As sociologist Thomas Medvetz puts it in his book Think Tanks in America:

The point becomes clearest when we consider the utility of think tanks from the standpoint of a politician. While American politicians cannot always dismiss scientific claims entirely, the presence of a large, stable, and internally differentiated think tank universe allow them to “shop” for policy expertise to support their pre-held views and thus to pit multiple forms of expertise against one another. Thus, when autonomously produced social knowledge does not suit their purposes, politicians can always count on the assistance of policy experts willing to lend the stamp of scientific or technical credibility to their views …


But how is this a form of power? By way of analogy, I would point out that it is a power akin to that of any expert witness called to testify in a courtroom, not primarily to persuade a judge or jury, but to undermine the authority of an expert on the other side. Even without inducing the audience to adopt his or her view, the second expert may establish doubt or uncertainty (or in any case, the need for a third expert to adjudicate between the first two). In a similar fashion, think tanks may exercise influence even through the production of degraded forms of social scientific knowledge … Put differently, even when their prescriptions are persuasive to no one apart from those previously committed to the same views as their own, think tanks may still produce a nullifying effect on the value of expertise itself.

The “carrot & stick” crowd is right to be skeptical of the idea that good policy advocacy can reliably convince liberals to embrace conservative policy positions or visa versa. That’s because politicians and their staff—just like the rest of us—greatly distrust those who don’t share their ideological values. But that still leaves a great deal of room for policy advocates to wield influence. Politicians can embrace ideas that move their policy agenda, or ones that only superficially deal with a problem. They can forward symbolically compelling ideas that will have little impact, or less politically sexy initiatives that promise to have major policy implications. They can offer innovative ideas, or try to repackage ideas that have been found wanting in the past. They might offer compromises or concessions in one direction or another in the course of building legislative support. There is plenty of scope for issue advocates to work productively even if they have difficulty working outside of their political base.

Political scientist Matt Grossmann provides the most compelling empirical case for the influence of policy advocacy groups in passing legislation. He examined the literature on the history of domestic public policy change since 1945. Grossman found that issue advocacy organizations exercised influence in 33.8 percent of the significant domestic policy changes over that period of time. Business interests, on the other hand, were deemed influential in only 19.8 percent of the examined cases, academics in 10.6 percent of the cases, professional associations in 6.6 percent of the cases, and unions in 6.2 percent of the cases.

The big take-away point here is that, while other non-governmental policy actors—autonomous academics, trade associations, business groups, unions, and lobbyists of all stripes—compete with policy advocacy organizations to influence public policy, they have not done as good a job as professional policy advocates in this regard. The reason, I suspect, is that think tanks and policy advocacy organizations marshal a unique combination of political savvy, policy expertise, financial resources, and marketing ability—a potent combination that is unmatched by their rivals in the policy influence “marketplace.”

Policy advocacy groups, moreover, were found to be more successful at influencing legislation when they work with Washington insiders than when they don’t. “Most frequently [22.2 percent of the time], a specific organization was referenced for developing a proposal or for their work on behalf of policymakers,” finds Grossmann. “On other occasions, a broad coalition was involved in promoting policy change.” Congressional lobbying, as employed by policy advocacy groups, was cited as a factor in policy change 16.1 percent of the time. Surprisingly, constituent pressure driven by policy advocates was only cited as an important factor 9.4 percent of the time; the publication of policy reports 9.1 percent of the time; public protests 2.9 percent of the time; and “resource advantages” 1.7 percent of the time.

The near irrelevance of “resource advantages” deserves special attention. Monetary advantages on one side of a policy issue were almost never mentioned by policy historians as an important determinant of interest group influence. PAC contributions also were rarely mentioned. These findings confirm those of a previous meta-analysis of case studies on interest group influence.

The “carrot & stick” model for how policy advocates can best influence legislation is superficially compelling. Both theory and practice, however, suggests that it suffers from an excessively narrow understanding of how the legislature actually works.