Lobbyists are Good People Too

Note: The following was originally published in The Washington Times’s Monday edition. — Ed.

Shocking news in this season of lobbyist bashing — many lobbyists not only are good people but also represent real people.

And even more shocking news: Without lobbyists, government could not function efficiently, and perhaps not at all, going all the way back to George Washington.

Last year, 15,965 lobbyists registered under the Lobbyist Disclosure Act, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The top five organizations in amounts spent for lobbying between 1998 and 2008 are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($427 million), the American Medical Association ($195 million), General Electric ($178 million), the American Hospital Association ($158 million) and the AARP ($148 million).

An interesting fact: Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — failed companies forced to be taken over by Uncle Sam, paid for by the rest of us — spent a total of $96 million and $80 million on lobbying, respectively, during that 10-year period. Looks like they could have put that money to better use, such as paying down their debts or cleaning out their portfolio of toxic assets.

Another interesting fact: General Motors spent $96 million and Ford Motor $80 million on lobbying during the same time period. Wonder whether it would have been better to spend that money on producing and marketing smaller cars with increased mileage or electric/hybrid technologies, as Toyota did during same time period?

But those who criticize lobbyists as being all bad are both wrong and hypocritical.

They are wrong because lobbyists spend much of their time with members of Congress and their staffs, providing factual and expert information about legislation that affects their clients. Their clients are companies that employ people, real people, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people who deserve to be considered when laws are made. The First Amendment protects petitioning and communicating with government.

They are hypocritical to use the word “lobbyist” as an unqualified pejorative because what is a “bad” lobbyist for some is a “good” lobbyist for others.

For instance, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America hire lobbyists. Are they bad? In the last three years, guess what “special interest” spent more than $20 million on “special interest” lobbying? The American Cancer Society. You get my point.

What is negative about lobbying is the absence of transparency — when the powerful and the wealthy have secret influence on members of Congress or the executive branch.

In secrecy, public officials — shock again — might be tempted to act in a manner that runs contrary to their independent judgment or the public interest, or in return for campaign contributions and other favors. Such a quid pro quo, of course, is bribery and criminal.

So what is the answer? Total transparency. (That expression should be a redundancy, but some people say transparency and then don't really mean it.)

Here's a simple proposal:
Every lobbyist visiting a member of Congress or the executive branch to influence official action (the definition of lobbying) should first be required to sign in on an online, real-time computer (and thus, immediately accessible to all).

Information to be disclosed before the meeting should include the lobbyist's name, the client represented, the amount paid by month or year for lobbying, the specific purpose of the meeting, the position to be taken by the lobbyist, the legislation to be discussed, the action to be requested (the “ask” or “asks,” to be updated after the meeting) and the amount of current and prior campaign donations made by the client, the lobbyist and relatives associated with both.

Every time, every meeting. It's as simple as that.

Of course, this could be somewhat burdensome, but lobbyists are well-paid and have staff to help them with this information. Some lobbyists might claim this would require the revelation of confidential information of value to competitors. That's an understandable concern.

But the answer is this: If you are worried about competitors knowing about what you are asking a public official, then don't ask. Once you go to a public official to ask for something, you lose your right to confidentiality. Period.

The effect of this “total transparency” lobbying reform proposal would be a level playing field for all: When a lobbyist asks a legislator or executive branch official to do something, they both know that the public will know everything and, thus, any actions taken will be accountable to the public.

With total transparency, lobbyists and the officials they try to influence will have to ask themselves the question, “Would I mind if this lobbying meeting is fully reported in tomorrow's newspaper?”

If the answer is yes and the meeting is canceled for that reason, that is a good thing for the public — and certainly for the lobbyist and the legislator as well, who probably do not want to risk going to jail.