In the News
A few clicks of a mouse will show you that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has co-sponsored more of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bills than any other senator’s over the past four years — 22, to be exact.
A couple more clicks show that those bills range from the serious (a measure to expand lending practices to people living in rural areas) to the ceremonious (a resolution recognizing the 50th anniversary of the congressional declaration of bourbon whiskey as a distinctive U.S. product). Another click or two will show that McConnell has a better record of getting bills out of committee than most Republican senators — he ranks seventh of 54.
A decade ago, such information — which is valuable to corporations, for-hire lobbyists and other outside interest groups looking to influence policymakers — might take years of working on Capitol Hill or K Street to accumulate.
Today, it takes a few seconds to pull up on a computer screen, and it is available for less than $5,000 a year, in a neatly packaged online dashboard called Quorum Analytics, a start-up launched in January by two Harvard undergraduates.
The idea of building searchable databases to track the movements of Congress is not new. Tools by CQ Roll Call and Bloomberg have long been used to follow legislation and search for contacts at committees and congressional offices. And lawmakers’ voting records, news releases and floor statements — all among the sources that Quorum’s algorithm pulls from — have always been publicly available.
But what Quorum sets out to do is compile, distill and package the data in a comprehensive way. Every 24 hours, the company’s algorithm mines those sources, plus lawmakers’ tweets and district-level census data. Then Quorum uses that data to create snapshots of lawmakers and their relationships by showing which members they work with the most (based on the number of bills co-sponsored and the number of times they voted for other members’ bills or amendments).
Quorum also measures each member’s effectiveness (based on the percentage of bills they’ve gotten out of committee and the percentage of bills they’ve sponsored that have been enacted) and ranks them against other lawmakers in their party. Another feature allows Quorum users to pick from a wide range of issues, from agriculture to international affairs, and generate a list of members ranked by how active they are in each area.
Lobbyists can use those metrics to answer some basic questions: Whom should I meet with? How likely are they to care about my issue? Who are their most likely allies?
Quorum co-founder Alex Wirth said the platform is not designed to predict the outcome of bills. “Our users are interested in data that informs their decisions,” he said, “but doesn’t make their decisions for them.”
Quorum is just the latest example of how companies rooted in data analytics are attempting to change the way lobbying is done in Washington.
Since 2010, at least four companies, ranging from start-ups to billion-dollar public corporations, have introduced new ways to sell data-based political and competitive intelligence that offers insight into the policymaking process.
They are turning lobbying, which was once based entirely on personal connections, into more of a science, and the idea is gaining traction among the field’s most established power brokers. Holland & Knight, Glover Park and Peck Madigan Jones — three of the nation’s top lobby firms by revenue — are among Quorum’s clients, and three Fortune 100 companies in the insurance, banking and energy sectors recently signed on as well. Quorum declined to share the names of the companies. Two think tanks — the Niskanen Center and Political Parity — also subscribe to its $4,800-a-year service, as does the office of U.S. Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).
Other companies are emerging in the space with some success. For others, it’s too soon to tell.
Popvox, founded in 2010, is an online platform that collects correspondence between constituents and their representatives on bills, organizes the data by state, and packages the information in charts and maps so lawmakers can easily spot where voters stand on a proposed bill. An early win was when nearly 12,000 people nationwide used the platform to oppose a proposal to allow robo-calls to cellphones — the bill was withdrawn by its sponsors.
Popvox does not disclose its revenue, but co-founder Marci Harris said the platform has more than 400,000 users across every congressional district and has delivered more than 4 million constituent positions to Congress.
FiscalNote, which uses data-mining software and artificial intelligence to predict the outcome of legislation and regulations, has pulled in $19.4 million in capital since its 2013 start from big-name investors including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and the Winklevoss twins. The company says it achieves 94 percent accuracy. And Ipsos, the publicly traded market research and polling company, is amping up efforts to sell polling data to lobby firms.
Though these companies have different goals in changing the influence game, they all rely on technology and the repackaging of data to achieve them.
In some ways, technology is just automating and verifying knowledge that a lobbyist may already have, based on instincts and experience.
“Much of the same result comes from intuition, the mental database that we carry with us after you’ve done this for a few years or decades,” said Gerry Sikorski, a longtime lobbyist at Holland & Knight, one of the first lobby firms to use Quorum.
However, access to statistics is now key to selling lobbying services to clients, who increasingly want empirical evidence to back up even the simplest claims about a lawmaker’s reputation.
“We instinctively know so-and-so is generally bipartisan on a particular issue, but Quorum helps us bring more analytical rigor to a statement as simple as that,” said Paolo Mastrangelo, a lobbyist at Holland & Knight who represents local governments, trade associations and corporations. “It helps us change the way we talk to clients on a daily basis.”
Congressional staffers expect lobbyists to come to meetings armed with statistics they can take to their bosses, said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, an advocacy group for children.
In meetings last year with staffers for U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), head of the House Appropriations Committee, Lesley’s group pushed for funding for a study on how Britain reduced child poverty rates and whether similar programs could work here.
“In the past, I might’ve been able to say, ‘You represent Appalachia, so it’s probably that way,’?” he said. “But now I was able to go into that meeting and say, ‘Your district is in the top 5 percent of kids living in poverty, therefore the issues we want you to think about in the appropriations bill are disproportionately impactful to your kids.’?”
Mastrangelo uses data to figure out how clients can best focus their resources. For example, Quorum culls from census numbers to show which districts have the highest jobless rates and who in Congress represents those constituencies. A trade association with members in all 50 states could pluck that information and quickly decide which lawmakers might be most receptive to a bill aimed at unemployment.
“Traditionally, lobby firms would say, ‘Let’s figure out which members of Congress you have in your [geographic] footprint, what committees are they on .?.?. and set up who we’re doing outreach to that way,’?” Mastrangelo said. Data analytics “helps us brainstorm and be more value added, instead of spending two days researching press releases, as we did in the past.”
The push toward data analytics comes as the influence industry is expanding beyond traditional lobbying and is folding in services like law, consulting and communications.
Ipsos, the $1.9 billion polling company, is beta-testing two products aimed at lobbyists and has hired public affairs strategist Phil Elwood from the crisis communications firm Levick to lead the effort.
Its Leadership Index is a twice-monthly poll with five questions related to hot topics in Congress. It is sent to residents in districts represented by Senate leadership. The polls reach residents by landline phone, online and mobile, and the responses — at least 1,000 response per question are needed to be considered statistically significant — are returned within a few days.
A second product, District by District Polls, is similar but will offer a quicker turnaround, between 24 and 48 hours. Ipsos is hoping lobby firms will pay a premium for such customized polls. It has not finalized the pricing model.
“Ideally we’d like this to become something that every lobbying firm needs,” Elwood said. “We’d like it to become the Xerox machine, to have a pulse on what leadership is thinking, so that when you go into a meeting with a member of the leadership, you can show your position is in line with what their constituency thinks.”
Ipsos has long been in the data business but is shifting its focus to repackage the data to appeal to lobbyists.
“Shoe-leather lobbying is dead,” said Cliff Young, Ipsos’ president of North America Public Affairs. “You can’t just walk in as a former member [of Congress]. That doesn’t exist anymore. You have to say, X percentage of your constituency supports or opposes this.” Bottom of Form