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Lobbying criticism – the good, bad & ugly

Everyone deserves a good defense but not everybody deserves special influence on the legislative process. I’m a huge advocate for all voices being at the lawmaking table – which requires either direct lobbying or the paying of influence, but this is a different story. Lobbying for foreign governments or their leaders isn’t a due process issue in the same vein as a defense attorney defending their client. Such activity deserves scrutiny and critique as it challenges us to decide when we feel that influence on our elected officials crosses the line or what that line even is.

The bad. Former Senator Chris Dodd just accepted a job with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA is the movie industry lobbying arm and has long been considered a plum Washington job. It is a plum position because one speaks with authority on the movie industry side while also having the opportunity to lobby on behalf of the rich and famous.

Dodd has been criticised for telling a reporter in the past that he wouldn’t be doing any lobbying. Of course it’s hypocritical to do something you said you wouldn’t do but this criticism of Dodd’s lobbying connection is an example of bad lobbying criticism. Dodd has already admitted that since there is a two-year “cooling off” period that he can’t really comment on the lobbying component of his job as he obviously won’t be involved in that for some time. 

This is bad lobbying criticism because it is basically demonizing the entire influence industry as a corrupt practice. Sure Dodd is a hypocrite regarding what he told the reporter but give him two years before you start making any unseemly associations or beat-up on the guy as just another “business-as-usual” elected official turned “corrupt” lobbyist. This criticism makes too many assumptions and is bad.

The same thinking that drives the public shaming of Dodd involves the recent study that demonstrated that 130 current Congressional staff are former lobbyists. We are told that this revelation requires scrutiny or that it demonstrates a corrupt back and forth between the influence industry and Congress. It is true that some instances of lobbyists turned staffers and staffers turned lobbyists have led to practices which are at the least unseemly and often wholly corrupt. But none of these people have done anything deserving this type of “we gotcha” finger-pointing. 

It is a very common practice for lobbyists to go to the Hill. The reasons are many including that a number of staffers turned lobbyists stink at the influence industry and were better policy people. Another common reason is that many staffers left the Hill because they weren’t receiving the career growth they desired and are now in a position to be perceived as serious policy or political staff. 

Most likely, many simply enjoy the policy making business more than the influence one and chose a return. This is ugly criticism because it presumes guilt where there is none. As I said, Dodd’s public statements are hypocritical so there is something to that criticism albeit bad overall but here we have no troublesome acts and thus the lobbying criticism is downright ugly. Don’t make assumptions and presume guilt before innocent public workers have done nothing wrong.

Lobbying is an important activity that has many benefits to it, but when lobbying becomes the public pinata for criticism and demonization it isn’t effective nor fair. There is a way to heap criticism and deliver scrutiny and many in the media should learn the distinction between good, bad and ugly lobbying criticism.

Maury Litwack is the founder of Capitol Plan, an advocacy training and education firm which among other things publishes the insider Lobbying Letter. 


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