On November 27, Rebecca Ballhaus’ article Companies Retool Lobbying as Donald Trump’s Administration Nears in the Wall Street Journal makes a inaccurate claim about growth in lobbying spending in the early days of the Obama White House, and uses a crappy graph to back up the bogus claim. The claim in question is that spending on lobbying rose after Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, with the supporting graph clipped from the WSJ here to the right.
When Ms Ballhaus promoted her story on Twitter, she put some further spin on the headline:
Not only did spending grow, apparently it spiked!
Let’s dig into the data a little bit and see if there’s any truth to this claim. Whenever I see a graph like this, my first instinct is to explore what’s been elided from the frame. If I could simply extend the graph out out to the left and get a peek at the decade before 2006, what would I see?
Happily, Ms Ballhaus is a responsible journalist and sources her data. In this case, she is pulling from the Center for Responsive Politics. After poking around on their website a little bit, I found this page on Lobbying with a nice little table. Their data goes back to 1998!
I wrote a little ipython notebook to extract the data from this HTML table using Beautiful Soup, stuff it into a Pandas dataframe and graph it using matplotlib. Yay python! Here’s my first graph, which draws the same chart that the Wall Street Journal did, but simply includes all of the years available in the original data source:
Well isn’t that interesting? If I were to characterize this graph, I wouldn’t say that lobbying spending rose (or spiked) after Obama entered the White House. Instead, I would say lobbying spending finally levelled off under the Obama Administration, after a decade of steady growth under the Bush Administration.
To make it even clearer, I made a second graph, charting the change in lobbying spending year-over-year. This clarifies the relationship even further. On average, lobbying spending grew 10% a year under the Bush Administration. However, once Obama took office, growth in lobbying spending dropped to zero.