As Congress prepares to leave town and disillusioned voters get ready to trudge toward the midterm elections, party leaders on both sides of the aisle are making the usual promises that if elected, they will do things better. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has promised to re-empower committees, noting that a “sense of mutual respect is necessary for constructive dialogue.” Following President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised a return to a bottom-up, subcommittee- and committee-driven process. But no matter who triumphs in November, our leaders will once again get a chance to establish the rules and tenor that will guide the next two years.
The list of necessary improvements to the legislative process is not new. Congress should spend more time in session; the minority party should be given the right to offer substantive amendments and in exchange resist the temptation to filibuster or otherwise slow down the process; the White House should meet regularly with leaders from both parties and committees should be empowered to drive the development of legislation.
But there is one more change that would help get Washington moving again: Lighten up on lobbyists.
On his first day in office, Obama had signed an executive order designed to rein in lobbyists who, in his words, “promote their own interests over the interests of the American people.” The order sharply limited lobbyists’ access to the White House, precluded lobbyists from serving in his administration and barred them from serving on the more than 1,000 expert boards that advise the administration.
The administration’s widely advertised anti-lobbyist posture has been politically strategic building on dark views of the lobbying profession stoked by the Abramoff scandal and presumption of rampant self-dealing in and around our government. Although Jack Abramoff was a con man who happened to be a lobbyist, Congress responded to his criminal behavior by layering an array of new requirements on existing rules, largely to ensure that lobbyists register and report on their activities. The administration’s follow-up efforts have not only excluded talented people, but ironically discouraged reporting and encouraged those seeking to serve in government to skirt the rules. Hundreds of former lobbyists have “deregistered” while doing largely the same work as “consultants” or “strategic advisers.” It turns out that people are less inclined to scrupulously report their activities if they are penalized for doing so.
No one is suggesting lobbyists are just misunderstood altruists who should get a leg up when seeking a coveted government position. Still, a categorical exclusion that is oblivious to individual history and ability makes little sense. Under the current rules, advocates for health clinics, coal miners, hedge funds, wind energy, small business and Big Oil are all lumped together as an “untouchable” caste to be isolated outside the White House fence. Why forbid a lobbyist against drug abuse from working in the drug czar’s office or a corporate tax lobbyist from joining the effort to close inequitable loopholes? In reality, most former lobbyists want to work in government for all the right reasons and often bring a wealth of expertise and experience to bear.
In addition, like many attempts to rein in rule-breakers with more rules, the Obama restrictions have defeated their own purpose by driving efforts to influence government – or draw on the expertise of outsiders – further into the shadows. White House staffers are well known to occasionally “bump into” lobbyists at a coffee shop across the street from the White House to avoid having encounters recorded in official logs. But the most important concern regarding lobbyist exclusions may relate to the issue of trust that lies at the base of all promises to make the system work better. In a political environment in which Democrats rarely talk to Republicans and relations between the White House and Congress are badly frayed, lobbyists are often the most reliable conveyors of information among the polarized power centers that are supposed to be leading our nation.
Congress is also to blame and should revisit some of its own requirements that relate to organizations that employ lobbyists. Why is it OK under House rules to receive a baseball cap from a lobbyist, but unethical to accept a coffee mug? Is size (ie. the infamous toothpick rule) really a good indicator of the corrupting potential of sustenance? It is fine to serve expensive hors d’oeuvres but a slice of pizza is gateway graft. Requirements against accepting expensive dinners, tickets, and any other personal enrichment should be maintained and enforced, but if Congress can’t trust itself, to have a plate of food during a policy discussion, how can it expect to gain the trust of the public.
Last month, the administration took a step in the right direction when, encouraged by a court decision, it lifted the categorical ban preventing registered lobbyists from being invited to serve on advisory committees. This move opens the door to thousands of talented professionals with unique expertise and a range of viewpoints to participate in these substantive assessments. But it’s only a first step. As the new Congress and administration once again commit to creating a more functional government, we should return to a system that takes full advantage of all the human capital that connects the political parties.
Jason Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and author of the recently released book, “City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy.”