Does Marrying a Lobbyist Hurt Your Election Chances?

I love it when one of the Great Questions Of Political Science that my thesis sought to address appears in the news.

Politico has a story about Stephani Herseth Sandlin’s relationship with a powerful D.C. lobbyist – the one she’s married to.

“Max Sandlin and his firm have amassed a healthy list of clients during the past few years. They include health care interests, energy companies and a posse of others, some familiar, some not,” the newspaper wrote. “It’s a safe bet that his wife’s opponents will scrutinize that list carefully.”

The Sunlight Foundation, Public Citizen and other watchdog groups are highly critical of Herseth Sandlin and other Members whose relatives work Congressional corridors. While a conclusive list is unavailable, lobbying records show that Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), John Mica (R-Fla.) and Blunt also have family members who are registered under the rules of both chambers.

The piece levels a series of worrying implications on the Herseth Sandlin campaign. Will the campaign be scuttled by Herseth Sandlin’s successful lobbyist husband? Will her tenure, like Tom Daschle’s (the article references his relationship about a dozen times), be marred the appearance of obvious, undo favoritism?

My initial guess was “no,” and then like a good political scientist I ran an oversimplified ANOVA, at which point my answer became “no, emphatically.”

I looked atPublic Citizen’s list of House members who had stepped out of office since 1968 and become energy lobbyists, 176 in all. I compared the lengths of their House tenures to those of the average tenure of U.S. Congressmen. It turns out that House members who retired and became lobbyists initially served significantly longer than the average House member.

People who end up as lobbyists actually appear to have previously survived in the House for longer.

The story of why this may be the case can be told from many directions. Is this a hardcore Stiglerian economists’ story, where legislators work harder to stay in power longer to accrue the lengthy Rolodexes that make them useful as lobbyists? Is it a journalist’s story about long-serving legislators simply further along the probability curve of legislators likelihood of being “bought out,” asymptotically approaching one? Is it an org theorist’s story about environmental learning? Is it an interest group theorist’s story about effort maximization?

My personal research leans me to that third idea, though in the complex world of the revolving door the timing of action is difficult to pinpoint. Legislators make good lobbyists because of their access. They have the capacity to push legislation because, possibly, they are pushing it to their friends, colleagues and, on occasion, family members. And because apparently those friends, colleagues, and family members face relatively low risks from heeding their ideas.


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