What’s so bad about lobbyists, anyway?

To paraphrase the late Rodney Dangerfield, lobbyists can’t get any respect. In public opinion polls, lobbyists can rank below lawyers as well as used-car salesmen.

The recent presidential campaigns capitalized on that sentiment, with each candidate declaring open season against lobbyists. The election is over but the assault continues. The president-elect has prohibited registered lobbyists from serving on transition teams that address areas in which a lobbyist has worked. As for lobbyists who aspire to a position in the new administration, no political appointee will be able to serve in an area in which he or she has lobbied in the prior 12 months.

While it is clear that lobbyists make good fodder in a political campaign, the election is now over. As someone who assists corporations and lobbyists in complying with the ever-increasing set of laws and regulations involving lobbying disclosure, gift restrictions, campaign contribution and fundraising requirements, I believe it may be a good time to ask, “What is wrong with lobbyists, anyway?”

To many, lobbyists represent all that is bad in Washington, and are credited with having created a “culture of corruption” in the nation’s capital. Long before the scandals involving Jack Abramoff and others began in 2007, lobbyists were routinely derided. Afterward, the demonization of lobbyists reached its historical zenith. In reality, however, those unfortunate incidents involved only a handful of criminals, including a small number of members of Congress, who were charged and in some instances tried and convicted under existing statutes. No one could make any apologies or excuses for their illegal actions that undermined the integrity of our government.

In an effort to further restrict appearances of impropriety, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) shepherded to enactment a historic overhaul of congressional ethics rules that significantly altered the manner in which lobbyists interact with members of Congress and staff. As a result of that overhaul, known as the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA), lobbyists may no longer buy lunch or dinner for congressional officials, give them tickets to sporting events or arrange travel to make speeches or tour a factory or plant.

Lobbyists as a class are one of the more regulated professions in Washington. Today, there are approximately 16,000 individuals who are registered as lobbyists under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), a reporting scheme that was enacted in 1995 to shed more light on the activity of lobbyists. The LDA requires lobbyists to report on a quarterly basis their clients, the fees they receive and the issues on which they lobby. HLOGA requires lobbyists twice a year to report campaign contributions for events that honor members of Congress or expenditures that they make to benefit members of Congress. In addition to any new post-employment restrictions that the new president is expected to announce, there is a series of revolving-door restrictions that prohibit former government officials from lobbying their former colleagues, in some instances on a permanent basis.

From all appearances, lobbyists are in compliance with this statute. A recent report issued by the Department of Justice indicated that for the last reporting that was analyzed, approximately 250 of the lobbying reports that were filed by all lobbyists required examination by the Department of Justice. By any measure, this evidences a high rate of compliance.

During the presidential campaign, the president-elect refused contributions from registered lobbyists. As the new Congress begins, so will the 2010 campaign cycle. Will members of Congress follow the lead of our new president and prohibit lobbyists from contributing to their reelection campaigns or raising money on their behalf? And what will be the impact of the recently announced rule mandated by HLOGA requiring members of Congress to identify lobbyists who sponsor fundraising events, shining additional light on the activities of lobbyists?

In the end, it may be that no rule, restriction or disclosure requirement will satisfy those who fundamentally object to lobbyists. But is that really fair? By and large, lobbyists are a rather unremarkable group of law-abiding professionals. The majority of lobbyists work in-house, representing corporations, trade associations, labor unions, nonprofit and religious organizations and academic institutions. And while they represent the interests of management, they also represent workers. Most make few or no political contributions and are not politically active. A lobbyist is merely an advocate who must know his or her clients’ interests, understand the legislative and regulatory process and effectively educate decisionmakers about the impact of their federal actions on the clients’ interests. And, in the end, to be successful, the decisionmaker has to share that interest, either for ideological, political or other reason.

 Yes, there are examples of bad actors in the lobbying profession, just as there are in any other. To paint all lobbyists with the same brush as those who have run afoul of the law, however, is unfair simply because it is not supported by the facts.
 
Spulak served as staff director of the House Rules Committee, then as general counsel to the House of Representatives. He is now a partner in the Public Policy and Government Affairs Practice Group at King & Spalding.