Congress and Lobbyists

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Thursday, March 21, 2002
Americans have several different views of lobbyists. Some see them as playing an essential part of the democratic process. Others look at them with skepticism, but understand that they have a role to play in developing policy. Most see them as sinister forces with too much control of Congress. The recent Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals, and revelations about those companies= extensive lobbying of Congress, have fed this cynicism about the hold that powerful private interests maintain over public policy. 

The truth is, though, in Congress things are often just as bad and at the same time not as bad as they appear. That's the case with lobbying. 

Let me explain by beginning with a story. A few decades ago, I served on a committee in Congress that handled foreign aid. One day, I argued in a public hearing for helping one of our allies; after I left and got back to my office, I found lobbyists from that country waiting for me. They wanted to thank me for my support with an honorarium of several thousand dollars, a trip to their country, and an honorary degree from one of their universities. I declined. What's interesting about this exchange is not my virtue, but the fact that in the 1970s this type of thing was legal and went on all the time. Now it would be prohibited. The ethical climate today is far ahead of where it once was, and most Members of Congress take such matters seriously. 

That's not to say that lobbyists don't have an influence on the process--it's just not as simple as it might at first appear. To begin with, Congress often takes up controversial, attention-grabbing issues on which you'll find an entire spectrum of opinions. Public notice is high, a host of lobbying groups are weighing in, lobbyists as well as Members themselves are all over the map. In these circumstances, the prospect is very small that any single interest group or lobbyist can disproportionately influence the results. Quite simply, there are too many of them involved for that to happen and the process is too public. 

Where you have to look out is when things get quiet, when measures come up that are out of the public eye. A small change in wording here, an innocuous line in a tax bill there--that's where specific groups can reap enormous benefits that might not have been granted had they been held up to close public scrutiny. 

The answer, it seems to me, is not to decry lobbying or lobbyists. In our system of government we make a lot of trade-offs, as James Madison warned more than two centuries ago when he argued that "factions" were part of the cost of maintaining a democracy. At heart, lobbying is simply people banding together to advance their interests, whether they're farmers or environmentalists or bankers. Belonging to an interest group--the Sierra Club, the AARP, small-business associations--is one of the main ways Americans participate in public life these days. 

When I was in Congress, I found that those groups not only brought a useful perspective to the table, they also pointed out how a given measure might affect my constituents in ways I hadn't considered. Lobbyists are typically professionals with a variety of skills: they are experts in their subject, have a sophisticated knowledge of the political process, possess the ability to raise large sums of money and make campaign contributions, maintain extensive contacts, can generate grassroots support, and often have great experience in putting together winning coalitions. I came to think of lobbyists as an important part of the public discussion of policy. 

I emphasize "public discussion" for a reason. Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant, and rather than trying to clamp down on lobbying, I believe we'd be better off ensuring that it happens in the open and is part of the broader policy debate. 

Under our system of government, there is absolutely nothing wrong with lobbyists advocating their point of view. Lobbying is a key element of the legislative process, and part of the free speech guaranteed under our Constitution. Members of Congress, I would argue, have a responsibility to listen to lobbyists. But Members also have a responsibility to understand where these lobbyists are coming from, to sort through what they are saying, and then to make a judgment about what is in the best interests of their constituents and the nation as a whole. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)