Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to “Change Washington” vowing to “upend the K Street Lobbying Culture.” In Annapolis Martin O’Malley came into office two years before that with similar fanfare although not quite as much as emphasis on that rhetoric. That was almost certainly because even during the preceding four years of Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich’s administration. The “lobbying culture” in Annapolis was at least partially if not mostly driven by the longstanding dominance of the General Assembly of Maryland by leaders and members of O’Malley’s own Democratic Party.
Once again, this political theater results from the political class of both parties, i.e. The politicians, their staffs, consultants, pollsters, and ultimately the elected and appointed policy makers from among them, who are selected to govern our country and our state, being convinced that “the people” whose perception of politics and government at every level is framed by the media’s 27-7 news cycle, hunger for drama. This drama is viewed by commercial media executives as necessary in order to keep our attention around the clock. That means that “the people” must be entertained with “news” and “analysis” which has “good guys” and “bad guys” who produce “good policies” and “bad policies.”
Reality, however, does impinge on the round -the -clock political theater staging of these productions. Ex- Lobbyists have already played major roles in shaping the Obama administration. More than a dozen members of President Obama’s Transition Team worked as federally registered lobbyists within the last four years. They include former lobbyists for the nation’s trial lawyers association, Fannie Mae, pharmaceutical companies, high tech firms such as Microsoft and labor unions.
This tells you how silly this whole attempt to demonize lobbyists is. By blaming them for whatever policies emanate from Washington or Annapolis which are viewed by politicians or pundits as “wrong,” “misguided,” “mistaken,” we label the officials we elected and appointed to govern as either dishonest or disingenuous. Politicians who demonize lobbyists generically and blame them for government’s failures are in effect confessing that they are either ineffectual as legislators and administrators or their advocacy is without sufficient intellectual content to withstand the substantive factual and legal policy arguments summoned against them. Lobbyists are paid to advocate for or against legislation or executive policies because they have substantive knowledge of the policy- making process, politicians, government and economics as well as how and where they intersect in our system to effectively pursue legislative and policy goals on behalf of their clients.
This view is shared by a wide range of commentators, Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal. Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton who has since lobbied, says “From George Washington to George W. Bush, there has been a role for the lobbyist that is perfectly appropriate and good for democracy”… .“The notion that there is something wrong per se with lobbying is ridiculous.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Michael Toner, who was the chief counsel to the George W. Bush 2000 Transition Team and chairman of the Federal Election Commission, says that excluding lobbyists altogether is definitely not advisable. “Campaign rhetoric is one thing — “you’ve got to have serious people who know the inner workings of the government.”
Many of those serious people including some who supported, and worked for the election of President Obama are alternatively either puzzled at the inconsistencies of his policies regarding lobbyists or hopeful that those policies will be reconsidered after the sheer weight of their lack of logic and fairness is focused upon. Daryl Owen a lawyer and registered lobbyist voted for the president twice. He describes him as “a constitutional scholar and former head of the Harvard Law Review.” Mr. Owen accuses The President of issuing and edict in his March 20, 2009 Presidential Directive that “bars behavior that appears to be protected by The Bill of Rights.”
That directive prohibits “lobbyists from being present at meetings to discuss stimulus projects” and further “bars federal officials from considering, the opinions of lobbyists unless those opinions are put in writing. “ It then requires that if the lobbyist’s opinions are put in writing that they must be posted online before being considered. In the face of this directive, Daryl Owen notes that it “exempts lobbyists who handle tax matters.” This causes Owen to inquire “Are they less evil then the rest of us?” He then focuses on the internal contradictions within the directive by asking why a Chief Executive, say of General Electric, should be permitted to visit the Federal Energy Department to talk about a federal grant in support of “smart grid”, but the registered “lobbyist” who is the head of his Washington Office has to wait in the car instead of accompanying him to this important meeting.
Daryl Owen concludes that “the president’s repeated verbal and now legal castigation of the lobbying community suggests that either he does not understand the role played by lobbyists or he understands, but is demonizing us for political purposes.” He then voices his hope for the future by stating “I am certain that the man for whom I voted (twice) is too smart to fall prey to the former and too noble to yield to the latter.”
Let’s hope so! Lobbyists at all levels of government perform a service to both government officials and equally importantly to their clients. Many have experience as government officials or staff themselves. That experience is not something to bemoan or lament. It is something to be proud of and cherish because it provides lobbyists with insight and perspective gained from exposure to both the inner workings of the government and of the private sector which when combined enable the lobbyist to be a unique and useful channel of communication between in Daryl Owens’ words “two worlds that have only the weakest understanding of each other.”
What do we have to fear from lobbyists? Well, principally what we have to fear is the loss or at least the weakening of the level of certainty we may possess about the correctness and goodness of our own political and policy beliefs. That certainty and confidence in the merits of our own opinions is threatened for sure if we recognize that one of the roles of an honest and capable lobbyist is to educate the government officials and their clients on the intricacies of issues. That education may not comport with our views across the board. As Nicholas Lehman, a writer for the New Yorker Magazine has pointed out that means that some of us have to get over the habit of assuming that “interests” and “worse lobbying and corruption are the province only of one’s political opponents and not one’s allies.” Lobbyists are the nemesis of rigid ideology and intolerance. It is their job to understand the merits of competing policies and ideas and to work with them and sometime to reconcile and/or compromise them.
Finally, yes, there are several monuments to the potential for abuse of the system by lobbyists. They now appropriately reside in federal penitentiaries or State Houses of Correction as do the government officials whose lack of honesty and integrity enabled them. Neither they nor the objects of their illegal bounty are confined to any single political party or philosophical faction.