Learning to Be a Special Interest

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Wednesday, October 13, 1999
A few years ago, I was getting ready to take part in a small-town parade when a young woman — a teenager, actually — came running up and said she wanted to talk to me. At the time I represented southern Indiana in Congress, so I was in one of those cars reserved for visiting dignitaries, up toward the front, ahead of the fire engines and the marchers from the American Legion post. The lead cars had actually begun pulling onto the parade route when the young woman approached me, but she was so obviously distressed that I had my car pull over to the side and let the rest of the parade pass. 

Her parents, she said, were addicted to drugs, her family life was miserable, and she felt trapped. If she went to the police, her parents would be arrested and she’d lose them. If she didn’t report them, they would continue their abuse. With no drug treatment programs around, she felt those were her only choices. It was a horrible dilemma for anyone, and an impossible one for a teenager. I promised her I would do what I could to help out. And I did. That encounter, and a few others, pushed me and my staff into a concerted effort to improve the availability of drug treatment and drug education activities in rural communities generally, and in southern Indiana in particular. 

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about that young woman in another context: Our continuing inability to come to terms with the influence of "special interests" on Congress. Let me try to explain just how she fits in. 

Not long ago, the Senate once again defeated a bill to reform the campaign finance system. Quite apart from what you might think about the specifics of the bill, one point at least was made clear by the debate, and that is Americans’ continued suspicion that Congress is manipulated by powerful wheeler-dealers who buy votes through extensive campaign contributions and other favors. It is not an unfounded concern, and it is not going to go away no matter how fervently some might try to dismiss it. 

Now, the popular view of lobbyists as nefarious fat cats smoking big cigars and handing out hundred-dollar bills behind closed doors is wrong. These days, lobbyists are usually good and even honorable people who recognize that their word is their bond. They are aggressive in seeking out Members of Congress, offering to take them to dinner, and operating from a carefully worked-out game plan that takes into account who might be persuaded to vote their way, when they ought to be approached, and whether they have constituents who can put pressure on them. Lobbying is an enormous industry today with billions of dollars riding on its outcomes, and lobbyists who can get the kind of language they want into a bill reap very large rewards. They are very good at what they do, and the fact is, Members of Congress can sometimes be easily swayed by them. 

But "special interests" are not just the bad guys. If you’re retired, or a homeowner, or use public transit, or drive on interstate highways or are concerned about religious freedom, there are people in Washington lobbying on your behalf. Advocacy groups help Congress understand how legislation affects their members, and they help focus the public’s attention on important issues. They play a vital role in amplifying the flow of information that Thomas Jefferson called the "dialogue of democracy." 

So our challenge is not to shut it down, but to make sure it’s a balanced dialogue, and that those in power don’t consistently listen to the voices of the wealthy and the powerful more intently than to others. Over the years, there have been various legislative proposals that would help, including campaign finance reform, tough restrictions on gifts to Members of Congress, prohibiting travel for Members and their staffs funded by groups with a direct interest in legislation, and effective disclosure of the role lobbyists play in drafting legislation. 

But in the end, there is something else that may be even more important: ongoing conversation between elected officials and the people they represent. As any Member of Congress who holds town meetings or stops to talk with people at street fairs knows, that is the only way to make sure that the people who cannot afford the trip to Washington — who can’t even afford to take you out to dinner — have a chance to tell you what’s on their minds. That young woman who came up to me at the parade was a lobbyist of a sort, and as she could tell you, citizens who are ready to step forward with their pleas and their ideas can be just as effective as the guys with the Gucci shoes and expensive suits who make $500 an hour. All it takes is a good cause, and the willingness to pull your Member of Congress out of a parade line for a few minutes. 

(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.)