Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lobbying’s Seven Deadly Sins

Many people ask me about my assailing Washington lobbyists. They also challenge me on whether there are any “good” lobbyists.

There have always been people who have acted as intermediaries between those in power and the general populace. This role has been filled by squires to knights, and courtiers to kings. During the Administration of President Grant these intermediaries mixed and mingled in the grand lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC and thus became known as “lobbyists”.

Lobbyists serve an important role. Not everyone can spend the time learning the Byzantine ways of our nation’s capital. Therefore, citizens, companies, and interest groups hire people who can craft legislation, testimony, and strategies to successfully promote a point of view. At the same time public officials seek out these very same lobbyists to help distill vast quantities of often conflicting information and advocacy arguments.

As government gets more complex and more pervasive citizens, those outside of Washington power circles increasingly require help from those who are part of these Washington power circles.

This is where things can go astray and democracy can be undermined.

First, lobbying is a business. That means those with the financial resources will gather more and better lobbyists than those who lack those resources. This marketplace for influence can undermine just causes in favor corrupt ones. Dictators have more money than revolutionaries, corporations have more resources than consumers, Lobbyists follow the money, and therefore, justice and morality take a back seat. I have many friends who tried lobbying and left the profession because it made them feel “unclean”. “The deserving can’t pay and the undeserving can,” explained one former lobbyist.

Second, lobbying is self-perpetuating. Lobbying is all about reaction. The trick is to do enough for a client to solve their immediate problem, but not enough to prevent future problems. If a problem goes away permanently, so does the client and the fees. Therefore, lobbyists seek remissions not cures for their clients.

Third, lobbying promotes more government. Even industry lobbyists rather seek special exemptions and subsidies over dismantling regulations. In 1979, Chrysler sought a government bailout, instead of using its crisis as a catalyst for regulatory reform. When conservatives raised this issue with the Chrysler lobbyists they just scoffed at the idea of regulatory reform over government relief.

Fourth, lobbying can be antidemocratic. Many lobbyists are hired to thwart the implementation of laws passed by Congress. I know one lobbyist who spent twenty years hampering the implementation of unleaded gasoline just so their company could extent their profits.

Fifth, lobbying is hidden. No matter how much Congress and the media talk about disclosure and ethics there is no way the public will ever know what really happens. Washington, DC is a very small town. There is no more than one or two degrees of separation between those who make decisions and those influencing those decisions. The power elite belongs to the same clubs, gyms, private schools, churches, or live in the same neighborhoods, and even the same condominiums. Such informal interactions happen constantly. So no matter how much a former official is banned from direct lobbying, they can be lobbying a colleague when they sit next to each other at a theatrical or sporting event.

Sixth, lobbying is ultimately about favoritism. The object of lobbying is to grant special treatment beyond what is officially allowed. There are certainly many lobbyists who promote issue oriented causes where their role is to strategically influence the legislative and regulatory process. These might be considered the “good lobbyists” as they give a voice to thousands of citizens in the Washington power circles. However, for every “good” lobbyist there are dozens of lobbyists who use government for individual interests against the general good.

Seventh, lobbying is addictive. Elected representatives approach lobbying like a drug addict. Some can take “one puff” and leave it alone, but most are hooked from the start. The more lobbyists assist an elected representative, the less likely that representative will want to hear from the electorate. The longer they are in Washington, elected representatives make a wonderful show of listening to their constituents, but actually key off of lobbyists, and then mask their true actions from the public. Lobbyists are more “user friendly” than sorting out what the electorate wants. Lobbyists can provide countless perks, many of them totally hidden from the public.

There is actually a term for this – “silver bullets”. These are special favors, include getting a child into a private school, making sure the representative or their spouse is appointed as a trustee to prestigious foundation, or promising a job with a corporation or with the lobby firm after they leave office. The “prid pro quo” can never be proven.

Lobbying may be a “necessary evil”. It will be part of government and Washington for the foreseeable future. We need to find ways to foster its the good side while effectively restricting its many abuses.

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