One of the more misunderstood and misguided aspects of the 2008 presidential campaign is Senators McCain and Obama’s effort to out lobby each other. Or, more aptly put to unlobby their campaigns and rid themselves of the negative perception and potential for scandal that mere association with lobbyists can inflict upon a campaign and its candidate. Both Senators have put strict sounding policies in place to protect them from the evils that lobbyists do. But is this frenzy to be lobbyist-free necessary? Are lobbyists truly such morally vacant and powerfully persuasive individuals that the presidential campaigns – and the candidates – need to be protected from their evil and influence? History and practice suggest that the answer is no.
Lobbying, or “the process of petitioning the government to influence public policy,” has been part of American politics from the very beginning. History points to a man named William Hull who was hired in 1792 by veterans of the Revolutionary War from the Commonwealth of Virginia to lobby Congress for additional compensation for their war services.
One can, in fact, find the roots of modern day lobbying embedded within the U.S. Constitution. A read of the Federalist Papers, the footnotes to our constitution, reveals the early groundwork for what we know as lobbying today. In Federalist 10, James Madison writes about how “factions” should petition the Congress to resolve differences in a peaceful manner. Madison’s factions are nothing more or less than the earliest incarnations of the various “special interests” that lobbyists represent today. Madison’s vision has come to fruition today and in a significant way.
The practice of lobbying along with the size of our government has changed much in the 215 years since Mr. Hull first went to Congress on behalf of his clients. But for many of those 215 years, lobbying was not a sizeable or terribly significant activity because the federal government was so small and, some would argue, so unimportant, relative to overall economy and wellbeing of the nation.
During the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln had a White House staff consisting of two personal secretaries. At that time, there were many fewer members of Congress and those members had no staff at all. Today, the Executive Office of the President budgets for more than 900 employees and Members of Congress have more than 30,000 staff members.
In 1970, our federal budget was just under $193 billion. By 1996, it had grown to $1.6 trillion. For fiscal year 2008, the budget is $2.9 trillion—almost doubling in the space of 12 years. To support the work of the government, there are about 2 million civilian employees. And that number is dwarfed by the “hidden workforce” of 10.5 million federal contractors and grant recipients.
The word “lobbyist” first entered the American vocabulary in the early 1870’s. Then, many members of Congress lived in the Willard Hotel, which still stands in all of its glory today. As the legend goes, agents of various interests used to sit in the hotel’s lobby in hopes of spotting a Congressman so they could strike up a discussion about the issues of concern to their clients. But the term “lobbyist” may be even older. Some historians trace it to 17th Century England, where business agents waited in an area in the lobby of Parliament hoping to put their case forward.
But whether the term originated in England or the U.S., anyone who tried to influence legislation the way lobbyists did in the 1870s—or even the 1970s—would not be successful today.
The practice has changed along with its rules and the stakes. Lobbying is a significant business enterprise today, accounting for more than $3 billion in client fees annually. The industries most actively lobbied include healthcare, telecommunications and financial services - A far cry from Mr. Hull’s early attempts to obtain higher pay for war veterans.
American politics now works in a 24 hour news cycle, driven by all news cable channels which deal with politics and policy around the clock. Stories that took a week to develop only 20 years ago are now public in hours – or minutes. The Internet, with literally thousands of web sites and “blogs” devoted to politics and public affairs, makes the communication process even more intensive. And information technology makes it possible for the opposition, no matter what side of the issue you are on, to quickly organize and formulate a response.
The information revolution has made the old fashioned lobbyist extinct. Congress helped drive him – and it usually was him - to extinction, as well, when it passed the Lobbying Disclosure Act in 1995. Lobbyists must now register with the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. They must disclose who their clients are, what they are doing for those clients and how much they are being paid for their services. All of this is good for the profession.
With public sentiment driving this demand for transparency—and with Congress responding to that sentiment—today’s lobbyist is a corporate and political strategist—a professional who fully understands and uses a complex variety of tools, including public opinion polls, message development, media, the Internet and grassroots organizing, helping members of the public communicate with their legislators about a particular issue. The modern day lobbyist leverages a set of skills and expertise that are beyond the reasonable reach and expectation of an average American business or citizen. Thus, the lobbyist’s ability to assist their clients “petition government,” as Madison envisioned, is an essential aspect of making our overall system work.
There are some people in the United States—people of goodwill—who believe lobbying is bad for government and bad for the country. They feel that lobbying is a profession for privileged insiders who trade their knowledge of and experience with government for political favors that benefit only the equally well-off. This view is as wrong headed as it is uninformed.
The fact is, the government in the U.S. today is so vast—and deals with so many complex issues of vital importance to American society—that members of Congress and their staff could not possibly find, consider and act upon all the divergent views that must be considered on a particular issue without the help of lobbyists. Lobbyists, because of their professional skills and their ability to immerse themselves deeply in a single issue at any one time, provide a service that not only benefits their clients, but serves the nation as a whole.
The 35,000 registered lobbyists in Washington today represent not only big business but also the retired and elderly, teachers, labor unions, firemen, outdoorsmen, environmentalists and virtually every other group that is – or could be - impacted by federal legislation or regulation. There are lobbyists on both sides of every debate. All voices are amplified. The system is working.
The U.S. government is as big as it is complex. Its reach is expansive and it touches virtually every aspect of American society. Lobbyists on both sides of almost every issue help their clients’ voices be heard and understood. As much as anyone, lobbyists enable the “great debate” that defines the U.S. form of democracy to occur. That is a good thing for our government and our nation.
Senators Obama and McCain are right to call for the highest ethical standards from those who serve in their campaigns and, potentially, in their administrations. But those standards must apply regardless of profession, background or pay status. Ethical behavior is just that. It doesn’t vary by profession, lobbyist or not. As participants in our democratic society, it is our responsibility to insist through our vote that those standards are met by all of those that serve a candidate and ultimately a president. We should not let misguided and unnecessary efforts to “protect” the candidates and their campaigns from lobbyists distract us from that duty. To do so will only offer false protection.
Robert Mathias is the Managing Director of Ogilvy Public Relations in Washington, DC.