Who Lobbies for the Rest of Us?

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Sunday, October 30, 2005
I don't think President William McKinley is remembered for much these days other than his 1896 defeat of William Jennings Bryan and his assassination in 1901. But you might give him at least a moment's thought for one other characteristic of his presidency: his insistence that he didn't want any lobbyists serving in his administration. 

It seems such a quaint attitude now, doesn't it? We have become accustomed to the presence of lobbyists, not just as part of an administration, but in every nook and cranny of Washington. People serve in an administration, leave it to make more money lobbying, then return to serve the White House. They put in time on Capitol Hill, either as staffers or as members of Congress, then turn around to lobby their former colleagues. 

And if they don't become lobbyists themselves, they marry them; any number of sitting members of Congress go home to spouses who work for private lobbying firms or represent particular special interests on Capitol Hill. 

You've probably heard the term "revolving door" government; sometimes it seems as though we've moved on to "advent calendar" government, with a former lobbyist or someone with close ties to lobbyists popping up behind every little window you open. 

Unfortunately, this is understandable. The constitutional right enjoyed by every citizen to "petition government for a redress of grievances" has become a career option, an industry that is making some people very wealthy. Lobbying has become a $3 billion-a-year industry. It has doubled in size over the last six years. Why shouldn't those who understand government, who have served in it and may serve in it again, try for their own slice of the pie? 

Why has lobbying become a major industry? Because people and interests with money have discovered over the years that it can make a difference. Lobbyists have been remarkably successful in promoting lax funding rules for pension funds, for instance; that has been good news for companies with pension-fund obligations, but bad news for the rest of us. Their work has worsened the chronic under-funding of pensions and shifted more costs to the taxpayer. 

Expenditures on health-care lobbying last year rose to $325 million, as health-care providers, insurers, drug makers, medical professionals and others all worked to make sure their interests were served as Congress took up their issues. Companies routinely help shape tax bills so that they pay less, even though this inevitably means that the ordinary taxpayer must pay more. 

I don't want to overstate the connection between lobbying and legislative success. Obviously, many factors influence the success or failure of a given piece of legislation. It stands to reason, for example, that Republican-leaning lobbyists could have considerable success lobbying a Republican administration and a Republican-led Congress, since their shared philosophies and common interests often point in the same direction. 

Yet all of these reasonable-sounding explanations are, in fact, part of the problem with the lobbying industry as it operates today. Sure, it makes sense for former members of Congress or former agency officials to lobby. And if a lobbyist is the best choice for an undersecretary position in a particular administration, why not let him take it? Certainly you shouldn't keep the wife of a member of Congress from choosing a lobbying career if she wants. And it only stands to reason that lobbyists would shower ideologically sympathetic lawmakers with campaign contributions and Super Bowl tickets as gestures of thanks. 

But we're in trouble when the lobbying industry becomes so intertwined with public life that it's impossible to tell if legislation is a legitimate "redress of grievances" or something less savory. 

We're in trouble because it then becomes easier for those with the money to buy access to get what they want, while many of the rest of us are shut out of the process. We're in trouble because it makes the entire legislative process suspect. Did this bill pass because it's best for the country, or because those with money had extraordinary opportunities to influence legislators that the rest of us lacked? 

And finally, we're in trouble because, whatever the truth of the matter, ordinary Americans grow to suspect that our system, our democracy, does not in fact work for them. A lobbying industry that citizens believe can overwhelm anyone speaking to their needs puts the legitimacy of representative government in peril. 

So it is time to enact meaningful lobbying reforms. No one anticipates returning to the strict moral code of President McKinley. But what lobbyists do regarding a particular bill or regulatory measure should be as transparent as possible - as easy to follow as going online to look up a weather report. The ties that lawmakers and regulators enjoy to particular industries and interests should be equally out in the open. 

Those who like business as usual in Washington will complain that enacting such reforms will stifle the informal relationships that are essential to the functioning of government. I don't think so. But even if it's true, then so be it. The stakes have become that high. 

(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.)