The State of Political Consulting: Rapid Growth, Stale Ideas, Same Old Corruption

Today Politico, a Washington insider publication that is intensely read on Capital Hill, published a piece uncritically cataloging the growing role of consultants in political campaigns. Washington D.C. may not have a problem with consultants, but if the American people certainly may, provided they ever realize the role consultants play in the average campaign and how that impacts our elections. The problem with consultants is that they have incentives that do not align with the best interest of the public and they have the insider knowledge necessary to manipulate every part of the political process.

Consultants are mercenaries who will, for a fee, work for any candidate to promote them for office. While many consultants are partisan, only working for Republicans or Democrats exclusively, even the most ideologically committed usually gravitate toward a paycheck over principle. Since consultants are mostly paid for with campaign funds, they are every bit as committed to pursuing a political strategy that maximizes fundraising as many politicians are. This means bowing down to party elders and pandering to a multitude of special interests, which even the casual observer of American politics knows is the dominate influence in Washington.

A consultant is always a trusted adviser of the politician who employs him or her and often the most highly valued voice in the room, especially if the consultant was with the politician through their first campaign and thus credited for “winning” that all important first election. It should be obvious that this is a dangerous position for a person whose livelihood depends on winning elections and raising money to hold such a position of influence over a politician who is supposed to be representing the general public. The often irresistible temptation is to advise policy choices motivated by things like raising more money and easier re-elections rather than the facts of a given situation, principle, or the wishes of the public (sadly, the wishes of the public aren’t always the most important factor determining an easy re-election). In this way the consultant, as the trusted adviser, manipulates and distorts the decisions of our elected political leaders.

Consultants also manipulate and distort the decisions of the public. The political candidate is coached to calibrate his or her message to what’s popular. This is a natural temptation of candidates and politicians that needs no additional reinforcement. Consultants also have every incentive to push the envelope too far, to play dirty and unethical tricks, to do anything they can get away with to make sure their meal ticket politician wins the election. Events are staged, questions are planted; every step of the way, ethical politicians are encouraged to do unethical things and unethical politicians are enabled in their skullduggery.

Unethical politicians will always be with us, but the effect of consultants on otherwise ethical politicians should be of concern to us all. How many promising politicians have we seen who honestly want to do the right thing, who stand on principle, and then slowly become the establishment problem once they arrive in Washington D.C. or the state legislature? Chances are, there was a consultant there helping them make that transformation. Every day a politician gets up and listens to dozens of people; constituents, fellow lawmakers, the media, and her own staff, including her consultants. If all the people surrounding a politician are telling her to compromise her principles, do what the special interests want, do what the establishment wants, raise more money, to not do anything risky, then it is going to be difficult for that politician to defy all those trusted advisers and do what’s right.

There’s an old saying that personnel is policy. That’s especially true in Washington D.C. We need to elect political leaders who are good and who will also have the wisdom to surround themselves with good people.  One way to determine if a politician will hire good staff is to see what kind of campaign they’re running. Do they have a mercenary consultant or are they mostly doing it themselves with volunteers, friends, and people who haven’t spent their whole lives living off of the public?

Finally, and I think the American people would be outraged if they knew this, many consultants use their position as trusted adviser to double dip at the public’s expense. In addition to managing campaigns, consulting firms also often run things like mail services that the politicians they advise use for services for their official offices, which is very lucrative and all at taxpayer expense. Worse yet, these kinds of conflict of interest are further amplified by the revolving door that sees consultants and their staff bounce between official and campaign work. During campaign season consulting personnel work for the consultant and get paid by the campaign while the same personnel works in official offices at taxpayer expense during the period in-between elections.

Consultants, including fundraisers, essentially serve as political middlemen. They parasitically drain money from campaigns and official offices, surround politicians with their personnel at taxpayer expense, and callously manipulate both politicians and the public from the shadows to ensure their paychecks keep coming. Some of the work that consultants do may be necessary and useful, but the consultants themselves are not. A good first step would be a strict separation between campaigns and government.  For example, a rule that prohibits anyone who acts as a consultant to campaigns from selling services to elected officials that are paid for with taxpayer money could at least diminish some of the conflict of interest that is working against the public.