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Art of lobbying isn't all negative

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:35 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

There is a new sheriff in town who purports to be a lobbyist’s worst nightmare. Citing the evils and corruption perpetrated by these influence peddling varmints from the onset of his campaign, the President-elect has decreed that federal lobbyists are barred from donating to his transition efforts and to his inaugural activities.

Further, while not banned from working on the transition, they may not be employed in those areas of their specific influence and are also prohibited from lobbying while so engaged. Additionally, no corporation or political action committee monies will be accepted for the transition phase — the donations are limited by statute to $5,000 and, presumably, must come from private parties.

Admittedly, this has the appearance of a nice ethical ring in that it attacks a cleverly constructed bogeyman, i.e. lobbyists — and ostensibly negates their influence on the administration. Nevertheless, this contrived “Mr. Clean” image from an elected official who reneged on his pledge to accept federal funding for his campaign and, thus far, has failed to provide an accounting report of the private campaign contributors and their amounts is quite a bit to swallow.

And, when one considers that the ban on donations to the inaugural events and extravaganzas applies only to the lobbyists themselves — corporations and political action committees may engage in business as usual — it is exposed as a cunning hypocrisy. The sources for the cash remain the same; however, they are direct donations, simply bypassing the usual lobbyist conduits.

An issue that begs a measure of explanation, though, is just what is a lobbyist and how or for what reasons has the profession acquired such an immoral repute. Webster's defines lobbying as “conducting activities aimed at influencing public officials and especially members of a legislative body on legislation or to sway or influence toward a desired action.”

Accordingly, lobbying is neither criminal nor immoral. Rather, it is an effort by private citizens, organizations or corporations to educate and influence both the public and the legislators toward a course of action which may or may not be mutually beneficial to all parties concerned. The act of lobbying, whether by individual, group or business, is merely an act of petitioning the government in exercise of free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Contrary to misinformation encouraged by the media, private interest groups and politicians, lobbying is not limited to that performed by evil corporate entities such as oil, tobacco, insurance companies, et al. For example, the Sierra Club, The Disabled Veterans, Planned Parenthood, the AFL-CIO, the American Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals, the NAACP and numerous social, educational and entertainment organizations employ full-time lobbyists to promote their interests in educating and influencing public opinion and legislation.

The smearing of lobbying as unsavory influence peddling by special interest groups is even more of a hypocrisy when one sees just how many family members of legislators are registered lobbyists. In a report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, 31 U.S. Senators have one or more family members employed as lobbyists or in government service. In total, Senators paid more than $900,000 in fees and contributions to family businesses or employers and over $500,000 in salaries or fees directly to family members.

To be sure, there are unethical and dishonest lobbyists just as there are "no-goodniks" in every walk of life. However, to attack a legitimate occupation, smearing it with rumor, innuendo and outright falsehood in order to project a sanctimonious or morally superior appearance is disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst. Lobbyists are merely a tool to educate and influence — they neither make nor enforce the law.

Lobbyists have offered inducements or bribes to government officials and some have been accepted — consequently, there are lobbyists as well as former members of Congress serving prison sentences or who have resigned in disgrace. But to indict all lobbyists for the criminal acts of a few is absurd. The lobbyist does not twist the arm of or otherwise force the elected official to accept the proffered bribe or favor — instead, it is the inherent weakness or dishonesty of that member of Congress which made possible and completed the criminal act.

Ambrose Bierce defined politics as “the conduct of public affairs for private gain.” Rather than castigate lobbyists, perhaps we should better screen those whom we elect.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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