Little Jack arrives home from school. He has just convinced his teacher that Kraft singles are far superior to the Jewel brand. His mother asks him about his day. “I want to be a lobbyist when I grow up!” Jack exclaims. His mother gasps. She imagines her baby boy departing for his criminal hearing in a fedora and trench coat. Mrs. Abramoff responds, “What about used car sales?”
Americans have learned to deplore lobbyists. Barack Obama has made his anti-lobbyist cleanliness the first bullet point on his ethics resume. He claims that the absence of lobbyists in his campaign separates it from the corrupting effects of Washington’s opaque, interest-based politics. He pledges that lobbyists “will not have a place” in his White House.
Sure, since Little Jack became Incarcerated Jack and the snake of the GOP’s 2006 fall, corporate lobbyists have become an easy target — but also the wrong one. In constructing new ethics legislation, the Obama administration should focus on the lobbyists’ employers: corporations that require legal protection to remain obscenely profitable.
Let’s face it, lobbyists are not all bad. Lobbyists advocate for infrastructural improvements, technological innovation and environmental protection. They promote the interests of workers, teachers and consumers. Even corporate lobbyists, though they may be the loose seductresses of Congresspeople, are necessary for our quirky democracy to function. They represent interests and opinions that have a constructive place in our political dialogue.
But the public has pigeonholed lobbyists as political prostitutes, with the criminality of Nixon and the shadiness of a pot dealer. K Street has become a symbol of legalized tawdriness, the back alley of our Capital. Its streetwalkers are on the prowl for the powerful. Instead of showing skin, they flash bundles of campaign donations. Instead of accepting a bankroll for their services, they accept a supportive voting record. Since there will always be another campaign to finance, another subsidy to push through, lobbyists’ intimate rapport with Congress is not at risk of faltering.
Though anger mounts when lobbyists “game” the political system to favor their employers, we should not blame the lobbyists, but the power-hungry interests that keep them in business: largely, but not exclusively, corporations. Do not blame corporations for hiring a lobbyist to defend them in Congress; blame them for directing the lobbyists to bribe politicians. Though lobbyists often end up committing the fraud, some — according to the fictional lobbyist Nick Naylor — are just working to pay their mortgage, which now happens to be worth more than their McMansion (thanks for the deregulation, financial services lobby).
The key to reining in fraudulent corporate influence is to encourage proper corporate influence and further limit campaign finance. Proper corporate influence includes educating political officials about the issues that affect them and advocating for legislation consistent with their interests. Corporations should not be directing lobbyists to help write legislation or wine and dine congressional staffers. Corporations that do should be vilified like the pimps that they are.
Corporate bundling of campaign donations by lobbyists must also be restricted. Bundlers should not only have to declare the donations that they collect, but should also be limited in total donations collected. Though it will be nearly impossible to restrain the influence of money in American politics without publicly financing all national campaigns, monitoring and capping bundlers is a start.
Lobbyists are a different breed of Congresspeople. If you are an old, pro-choice teacher who buys consumer goods, you have at least four lobbies protecting your interests. Lobbyists are the mouthpieces for specific opinions that senators are too afraid to defend. I am glad that there are more perspectives represented in Washington than the 535 in Congress.
Lobbyists help fuel the high-powered policy discourse in Washington. Sure, money gets them in the door, but that’s where they need to be. Legislators are meant to be policy judges. Lobbyists advocate for positions and legislators weigh them, determining which solution would best benefit their constituents.
Of course, lobbyists are not the only sources of information or opinion. Congressional staffs should be relatively intelligent. Think tanks publish reports. Academics write books. Nonetheless, the interests affected by any piece of legislation, corporations or not, should have their day in court — as long as their advocates don’t seduce the judge.