Keystone and the limits of interest group politics
There’s a lot of pundit chatter about the power of interest groups — or, to translate into Serious Punditspeak, "entrenched interests" — to affect or "capture" public policy. But what is it exactly that these interests do to do the voodoo that they do so well? Political scientists in the United States generally talk about three ...
There's a lot of pundit chatter about the power of interest groups -- or, to translate into Serious Punditspeak, "entrenched interests" -- to affect or "capture" public policy. But what is it exactly that these interests do to do the voodoo that they do so well?
There’s a lot of pundit chatter about the power of interest groups — or, to translate into Serious Punditspeak, "entrenched interests" — to affect or "capture" public policy. But what is it exactly that these interests do to do the voodoo that they do so well?
Political scientists in the United States generally talk about three ways in which these groups influence the public policy process. The first is through political money. Interest groups can fund a politician’s quest for election and reelection — and, if the politician fails to please a particular interest group, well, it can always try to fund one of the politician’s opponents, whether in a primary or a general election. Hence the endless quest by elected officials to raise money. If that doesn’t work, of course, there’s also the post-political incentive by elected officials to earn their coin by working for the very sector over which they had oversight.
The second way, which is often (but not always) overlooked, is through the provision of information. Politicians and their staffs can’t know everything about every public policy issue. They have to rely on experts. Some of those experts work for interest groups. Indeed, very often these groups have superior knowledge, to the point where they just write some draft bills themselves and then pass those bills on to the salient politicians.
The third way, which is almost always (but not always always) discussed, is through the invocation of values and ideas. How does an elected official want to be viewed by the weight of history? What will be a politico’s legacy?
I’m being pedantic here because of Matt Viser’s (subscription only) informative front-pager in the Boston Globe on the lobbying effort that all sides of the Keystone pipeline debate are mounting to pressure Secretary of State John Kerry into ruling in their favor. The tricky thing for the interest groups, as one reads the piece, is that their normal Dark Arts likely won’t work:
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who for decades has portrayed himself as one of the nation’s leading environmentalists, is under siege from all sides as he faces one of the most difficult decisions of his career: whether to approve the Keystone pipeline.
Several environmental groups are set to launch campaigns this summer to pressure Kerry into opposing the pipeline. One will publicize his past calls to fight global climate change — statements that they argue would make Kerry look like a hypocrite if he now supports the pipeline.
Pipeline advocates, meanwhile, are gearing up for lobbying efforts of their own, hiring firms whose consultants include several former Kerry aides.
One measure of the intensity of public sentiment: A staggering 1.2 million comments — an unprecedented number — have been submitted by the public as part of the State Department’s review process.…
Kerry now finds himself acting not as a protester or politician — the roles he has filled for most of his career — but as the nation’s chief diplomat, acting on behalf of the White House and attempting to bring conflicting factions together.
For all the difficulty of presenting himself as an honest broker in foreign affairs, Kerry faces an equally daunting challenging trying to please an array of constituencies in the pipeline fight.…
[Sierra Club President Michael] Brune said his organization is planning to target Kerry over the coming weeks through petitions, protests, demonstrations, and social media. “Everything that you can think of in a normal pressure campaign,” he said.
The State Department in March released a draft of an Environmental Impact Statement, saying there were no significant environmental reasons to block the pipeline, which some viewed as an indication the department looked favorably on the project.
After that report is completed, another one will begin — with contributions from eight federal agencies. The second report, called National Interest Determination, will probably take at least three months. Once it is finished, both reports will be given to Kerry, and it will be up to him to make a final recommendation.…
Pipeline advocates are also starting to target Kerry. In mid-March, about six weeks after Kerry was confirmed as secretary of state, the province of Alberta hired new consultants — some with ties to Kerry — to help them ensure the project wins approval.…
Last month, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry declined to discuss his view about the pipeline.
“I am staying as far away from that as I can now so that when the appropriate time comes to me, I am not getting information from any place I shouldn’t be,” Kerry said [emphasis added].
So, what does this article — and other knowledge about Kerry — tell us about these influence attempts? Well, money is unlikely to matter here. Kerry is in the "statesman" phase of his career. He’s not going to run for president again, and he’s not going to run for the Senate again either. There is no election he needs to worry about. As for his own personally finances … that’s not really an issue. And as the bolded quote suggests, information also appears not to matter much here.
Strange as this might sound, if Kerry is making this decision independent of the White House — and hey, if the White House is as powerless as they say, that sounds plausible — it’s going to be a values decision. And the values appear to cut both ways for Kerry: demonstrate his commitment to environmentalism and scotch the deal, or demonstrate his commitment to diplomacy and international comity
and that he’s better than Andrew Cuomo and approve it.
My point in blogging about this is to point out that for all the conventional wisdom about the power of interest groups, the Keystone decision, at this point, appears to be an area where their traditional channels are blocked. Bear that in mind as this debate moves forward.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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