Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lobbyists and Special Interests

Full Disclosure: Although lobbying is such a small part of my job I actually don't even need to register as a lobbyist, I have done so in compliance with my employer's policy of adhering to a "gold standard" of political transparency. Therefore, I am technically one of "them."

Both candidates have made a show of how they'll control Washington's "special interests" and the lobbyists who represent them. But, we know that many of McCain's top advisors are lobbyists, and we recall that Obama's VP hunt was initially led by Washington fixer and pre-eminent insider (and former Fannie Mae CEO), James Johnson. Others on Obama's team were lobbyists before coming on board, and presumably may return to that vocation.

Lobbyists are a part of how Washington works. That's a good thing, because what lobbyists mostly represent is information. With Washington regulating the smallest details of our lives (Congress recently outlawed the traditional lightbulb, but the prohibition won't kick in for a few years), it needs to understand how what it is doing will affect US businesses, the jobs they provide and individual consumers. Although Members of Congress have staff, and some supporting agencies such as the Library of Congress and the Government Accountability Office, they don't have nearly enough information to do the job without a lot of bad, unintended consequences.

That's where lobbyists come in. We provide information, and occasionally advocate for a client, much like a lawyer does in court. Rather than represent clients before the judiciary, lobbyists represent them before the executive and legislative branches. As a profession, it is very highly regulated at the national, state and local levels, and became even more so a couple of years ago after enactment of new ethics laws that were supposed to address recent abuses, but in fact, had little or nothing to do with them.

Like any job, lobbying can be done well and ethically, or poor and unethically. Our government benefits from the former as much as it suffers from the latter. Rather than talking about lobbying as something that needs control, then, we should ask candidates for office to specify what lobbying activities concern them and how what solutions they propose will solve them.

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