Drive by the Newseum and one can clearly see a perhaps overlooked part of the First Amendment etched in its facade, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom. . . to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That is what is at stake, the fundamental right for any entity, including the much maligned American corporation, to make its case to Congress and members of the Executive Branch. Because of a few criminals, however, the emphasis is on the actor, rather than the rights they help others exercise. What would the 6th Amendment be if lawyers were banned from courtrooms?
And speaking of lawyers, perhaps lobbyists can take a lesson from them. Facing its own onslaught a few years ago, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America attempted to turn the focus of the organization from the membership itself to the principles that they seek to protect and became the American Association for Justice. As a critic, you can be against a trial lawyer, but can you really be against justice?
Another group that recently altered its public face was the Air Transport Association, the highly regarded trade association of US airlines. Under the leadership of its CEO and President, Nick Calio, one of the savviest strategists in Washington, the group changed its name to Airlines for America, re-focusing its emphasis from the airlines themselves to the communities that they serve.
To be sure, not all of the lobbying community’s problems would go away if the ALL were to change its name to ADDI--Association for the Defense of Democracy through Information. (Okay--just a wild stab.) It would, however, place the emphasis where it belongs.
Some may say that this is more form than substance or not even an issue at all. But let’s be clear--there is a growing effort by groups and interests to limit the ability of corporate and other business interests from being able to present their views to government officials. For example, today the administration uses the technical definition of lobbyist to discriminate against individuals who wish to interact with executive branch officials. Tomorrow, that ban could just as arbitrarily be extended to non-registered corporate representatives. Many media outlets have joined in, labeling any effort by a corporation to weigh in on legislation as being a “special interest” and categorically against the public interest.
It is time to acknowledge that what is at stake is the right of all interests, for profit corporations included, to provide information and present their case to elected and appointed officials. If anyone believes that is not at risk, they are either not paying attention or are pleased with the current trend of increasing restricted access.
In the end no government official has to agree with the position of anyone, but the Constitution does give everyone the right to at least plead their case. Having an organization of stakeholders that regularly reminds the American public of its right to seek redress from the government and to alert them when that right is being threatened would be a good thing. The ALL should emphasize the principles of petitioning the government rather than those of the petitioner.
Spulak is a King & Spalding partner and chairman of the firm’s Government Advocacy and Public Policy Practice Group. He served as Democratic Staff Director and General Counsel of the House Committee on Rules, and as General Counsel to the House.