January 11, 2012

Lobbyists don't kill the people -- people kill the people.

Shakespeare famously advised to first kill all the lawyers. These days, however, it's The Lobbyists who are the big villains. 

Lobbyists are the one class of Washington insider not welcome in this White House or among its appointees. And yet, the corporate titans and attorneys and bankers, the big campaign donors and fundraisers, all are invited to work in the Administration. In other words, those who hire lobbyists to actualize their own influencing of how Washington works are considered clean. This is especially ironic, since only bonafide lobbyists are required by law to report every government contact they have, and on what matters were covered. Anyone else can influence policymakers all day and night, without having to disclose it, and then jump in when the time is right. This includes the people behind multi-million-dollar "527" committees that raise money in secret and run media campaigns to get the Presidents elected.

It's not just Democrats who find the rhetoric against "lobbyists" to be a convenient bogeyman. This past weekend, Republican Presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney was boasting that his own campaign is not being run by any Washington lobbyists -- in contrast to one or two rival campaigns. When a reporter challenged him on this, Romney argued with him at length about whether one particular high-powered lobbyist is actually running his campaign or merely serving as an occasional, unpaid "adviser". 

But what difference would it make? Lobbyists are the equivalent of drivers, hired by the real monied classes to deliver messages, and to recite convincing arguments to policymakers who already know that their clients have donated major cash to their political bosses. Meanwhile, nearly every campaign is flooded with wealthy business executives and "consultants", financiers, corporate lawyers, and real estate developers -- and so is every Presidential administration.

The past week in New York State has been unusually fun for lobbyists. Suddenly, everyone in New York WANTS to be a lobbyist. Governor Andrew Cuomo promised in his annual State of the State address that he would be THE lobbyist for the state's schoolchildren -- as opposed to all the lobbyists representing teachers, school bus drivers, maintenance workers, et al. Within minutes, one of the "pro-parent" groups that gets funding from teachers unions fired back that they are the real lobbyists for the students, and the state needs no others. This week, the Democrats in the State Assembly affirmed that they are the true lobbyists for the students, along with their parents -- with no disrespect to the Governor, of course. 

So perhaps, in New York State, it is OK to be a lobbyist, as long as one is doing it for a good cause. But I doubt the Governor or the Members of the Assembly will be registering themselves as lobbyists anytime soon.

In Washington, even lobbying for a good cause is a problem, as Tom Malinowski discovered many moons ago. As Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, Tom had lobbied in support of global human rights, on Capitol Hill and in the White House and State Department. As a result, according to the reports, he was disqualified for service as Assistant Security of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Tom was not billing by the hour to push for new corporate tax loopholes or redesign the tariff schedules to enrich textile manufacturers -- the guy was going flat out, day and night, to promote fundamental human rights! The ultimate choice for the appointment was a distinguished and worthy champion who, as the overall head of another human rights group, was not himself registered as a lobbyist. Whew... It's good to know there's no conflict of interest between advocating for human rights from outside government and advocating for human rights inside the government. 

I know Washington insiders who used to err on the side of propriety and register as lobbyists, and who now just avoid registering and having to carry the new Badge of Shame, the despised "L" word, around their necks. Not so long ago, a colleague and I were setting up a visit in Washington, to meet with key aides to a VERY senior official. My colleague had worked closely with this senior official, and continued to have the official's ear like almost no one else. But the receptionist still had to ask us, "You're not LOBBYISTS, are you?" We both shared a very full chuckle afterwards. "Lobbyists" we were not.

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