There are few words in American society that can arouse such universal revulsion among people of all walks of life as the word lobbyist can. Countless polls, including a December 2013 Gallup poll, show that Americans consider the lobbying industry to be the most dishonest and unethical field in the country. This is an unfortunate perception, as most lobbyists consider themselves fierce defenders of the public interest. While the Jack Abramoffs of the world have left the public with an understandable distaste for the profession, what most Americans do not realize is that corruption is the exception to lobbying, rather than the rule. Currently, there is significant discussion about President Obama's hiring of former lobbyists in the Executive Office, an act that I do not necessarily view as a bad thing. As someone who has worked in the private sector, political campaigns, U.S. Congress, and, currently, as a registered lobbyist, I have viewed the industry from most every angle, and would like to clear up some common misconceptions.
1. No, lobbyists do not buy off elected officials. While campaign contributions are certainly a component of lobbying work, they are not the primary vehicle that a lobbyist will use to interface with the government. In fact, lobbying shops must adhere to strict compliance rules on contributions, including Congressional Ethics rules that strictly forbid the exchange of donations for specific legislative acts. Any such quid pro quo arrangement would constitute professional suicide for both an elected official and lobbyist. The rise of so-called good government organizations such as opensecrets.org and the implementation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act, enacted during the presidency of George W. Bush, make it easy for the public to track contributions and interactions between lobbyists and Members of Congress.
An unfortunate reality of holding an elected office is that campaigns are growing increasingly more expensive. The 2012 presidential candidates spent in excess of $6 billion and the average Congressional campaign requires at least $1 million to be competitive, all largely due to the exorbitant cost of purchasing air time in major media markets. The fact that less than 1% of Americans contribute reportable amounts to campaigns means that PAC donations are the price of doing business with elected officials who work to get results for their constituents.
2. No, lobbyists do not run amok with expense accounts either…. though it is true that they did, once upon a time. However, unethical behavior by a few corrupt lobbyists did bring about stricter regulation of the industry. Currently, lobbyists cannot give anything with a value greater than $50 to a Member of Congress, and lawmakers are barred from accepting them by ethics rules. This also means that the power lunches and lobbyist-sponsored trips are a thing of the past. I think many people would be surprised by the specificity of the rules that exist about gifts and expenditures. From my experience in Congress, any event that a Member of Congress was invited to had to have prior clearance from the House Ethics Committee. Even a simple after-work reception had to be vetted by the Committee to ensure compliance to the rules, which ranged from verifying that the ticket was not paid for by an outside organization to critically important details such as ensuring that hors d'oeuvres are only eaten while standing (I’m not kidding on that last one).
3. Everyone has a lobbyist, even you. There is a trade association or interest group for EVERYTHING under the sun. There is even an association for Associations. More importantly, these organizations represent the interests of millions of Americans. Is your company a member of a trade association for its industry? Have you ever donated money to groups like the NRA or the ASPCA? Congratulations! You have a lobbyist. Donations to these organizations are used to fund advocacy activities that reflect the interests of its members, which leads to the next point….
4. Lobbyists know the technical stuff, so you don’t have to. A Member of Congress has limited resources to operate his office, which means that, for the most part, they are forced to be jacks-of-all-trades. While it would be ideal for lawmakers to employ an expert on energy policy, an expert on education policy, and experts for every possible interest area, it is simply not feasible on a Congressional office budget. This is where the lobbyist’s value comes into play. A lobbyist can provide expertise on an issue in a way that a Congressional office cannot. For the most part, a lobbyist does not spend the majority of his time on Capitol Hill glad-handing with Members. You are more likely to find a lobbyist holed up in a tiny Congressional office interpreting highly technical material and the impact a bill might have on his clients. While an elected official can write a general bill about farm subsidies, for example, it is the lobbyist who can point out the potentially negative impact the bill might have on family-owned corn farms in the state of Nebraska, and offer suggestions to improve the bill. While the average person might not give a second thought to the details of legislation, the lobbyist is paid to sweat the small stuff, thereby protecting his clients from any adverse effects.
5. Woe betide the dishonest lobbyist. The only person hurt by dishonesty is the lobbyist. To be an effective at lobbying, a lobbyist must build a relationship of trust with elected officials. A good, honest relationship means that when a Member is considering a new bill, he would be inclined to call the lobbyist he can trust to explain the statutory impact of a bill on a specific industry. A lobbyist who gains a reputation for exaggerating numbers or breaking promises is guaranteed to be removed from a Member’s quick-dial list, rendering him ineffective for his clients.
People often associate lobbying with peddling influence on the behalf of the very rich. Admittedly, there are some lobbyists for hire out there who do represent very wealthy clients, but for the most part, my encounters with them have been few and far between. Whether he is rich or poor, a citizen’s right to petition government for the redress of grievances is enshrined in the Constitution. But, leaving that aside, I’m more likely to bump into lobbyists advocating for much smaller, but no less important interests. The National Federation of Independent Businesses, for example, has a legislative arm to represent the mom-and-pop business (think of a neighborhood cafe or local hardware store) they count as members. I’ve met other lobbyists who advocate for specific bills that protect American jobs. Both causes, I think, are very honorable. It’s true that the Abramoff debacle has caused many lobbyists to view the profession as if it were emblazoned with a scarlet “L.” However, it is my hope that the improved transparency of the lobbying industry will allow the public to see the good work that lobbyists do. One day, we might even see a public restoration of the word lobbyist.