Many fear that lobbyists corrupt our government. For those concerned, a new study by LegiStorm will prove alarming. According to the study, nearly 3,000 registered lobbyists have recent experience on Capitol Hill. As reported by the Washington Post, “Twenty-five powerhouse firms and organizations employ 10 or more former Hill workers.” Movement from lobbying firms to the Hill is also common, with over six-hundred making the transition in the past decade. These employment patterns seem rational: those familiar with the legislative process are better equipped to persuade officeholders. The same logic may justify transitions from lobbying to the Hill. Where an officeholder develops respect for a lobbyist’s expertise, and is enthusiastic about that lobbyist’s issue, an employment offer makes sense. Still, many have a visceral distaste for the revolving door that operates between Congress and lobbying firms. The antipathy is understandable. Lobbying firms charge exorbitant rates. As a result, those without resources lack access to their influence. Fluidity between Congress and K Street compounds marginalization by creating the perception that quid-pro-quo corruption is institutionalized.

To the extent that the relationships between officeholders and lobbyists remain opaque, they may be problematic. A potential solution, however, can be extracted from a surprising source. In Citizens United, Justice Kennedy wrote to reintroduce corporate and union spending into political campaigns. While doing so, he spoke of robust disclosure. Justice Kennedy asserted that disclosure would protect the integrity of elections by ensuring that voters are “fully informed.” He continued by stating that “With the advent of the internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide . . . citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions . . . .” Justice Kennedy’s position won the support of 8 Justices. His insistence on disclosure reflected concern that, without transparency, elected officials might “put expediency before principle,” and “succumb to improper influences from independent expenditures.” Because those concerns also permeate discussion about the relationships detailed in LegiStorm’s study, disclosure is critical. A regime could be constructed without betraying much personal information:

‘Congressman Doe has hired X many lobbyists from the widget industry, and has consulted with Y many lobbyists on each of the following issues. Meanwhile, the lobbying firm of Ames and Gropius has hired Z many hill staffers, deploying them    across a range of issues including…’

That disclosure would be a tremendous asset, helping restore credibility to government practice. In a pluralistic society, conveying whether varying perspectives are represented satisfies a basic right to information. Such satisfaction might ensure that knowledgeable professionals remain active in government without suffering reputational harm. It could also ameliorate tension between those who enjoy access to lobbying firms, and those who don’t.

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3 Comments

  1. Brandon says:

    Interesting post, but isn’t the real issue that we have a system that requires lobbyists?

    Also, while disclosure may be a step in the right direction, it may disincentivize politicians from hearing out important viewpoints. For example, a Democrat on a banking committee may find it important to hear a financial institution’s view on how a potential regulation may affect them, but turn down a meeting and make an uninformed vote in an effort to avoid being associated with a financial institution simply because he listened to them.

    It also may marginalize the public perception of other more important sources of political influence that wouldn’t be required to be disclosed. For example, it seems like it would be much more important to disclose that hypothetical Congressman Farney Brank has a boyfriend at hypothetical mortgage giant Mannie Fae than the fact that Cong. Brank met with no mortgage industry lobbyists

  2. astrepp says:

    All good points. I’ll try to address them sequentially, and as best I can.

    1) Its hard to imagine a representative system that doesn’t require lobbyists, particularly in a policy-making environment that requires each representative to cast his or her vote on a range of complex issues. It’d be interesting to entertain alternatives to the practice of lobbying, if anyone can construct/articulate any.

    2) To the extent that meetings with banking lobbyists result in Democrats aligning their votes with banking interests, or a similar process unfolds with regard to Republicans, questions might be asked. Still, its hard to imagine an officeholder losing support for taking a meeting if their vote ultimately reflects the party platform. In the former case, I imagine the questions will only compound those that would be asked of any politician voting against party.

    3) I don’t think that the public attention span for controversy/scandal is zero sum. I bet media sources have adequate incentive to continue investigating inappropriate relationships between politicians, and individuals who are not registered lobbyists but offer particular perspectives.

  3. Laura says:

    I just want to add to #2, that hopefully that Congressman is meeting with both sides (or, as in some cases that don’t just have two sides, all sides) and the transparency will reflect that. If so, perhaps we can change the norm so that those who in fact do not meet with both sides of the issue won’t be respected, won’t be reelected, and so on. And then this can (hopefully) help ensure we don’t have as marginalized politics as we do now, and maybe even get some people reaching over the aisle on issues that they’ve been fully debriefed on.

    If anything, I think transparency will do much more good than harm. And any representative scared of that transparency, and scared of telling his or her constituents that all viewpoints must first be heard for him or her to come to a conclusion about how to most effectively represent them, should probably not be in office in the first place.

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