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.