Campaign Money Game Casts Pall Over Lobbyists

Posted February 4, 2009 at 2:56pm

During the 2007-08 election cycle, the term “lobbyist” became an even dirtier word. The term became shorthand for the insider trading and cozy special interests that have infected Washington — and with good reason.

President Barack Obama’s new executive order curbing the lobbyists’ revolving door in the executive branch is an auspicious start to the new administration and makes clear that public service should not be viewed as a means of enriching oneself after leaving a federal position. Being called to serve your nation by the president is an honor, not a meal ticket or a lottery ticket to be cashed in on K Street.

However, it is important to recognize that not all lobbyists are cut from the same cloth. Many of us who lobby for nonprofits don’t particularly enjoy being lumped in with Jack Abramoff and the black hats of the profession.

The problem with the profession as it has now evolved is that lawmakers’ time and attention are increasingly consumed with the chase for contributions for the ever-upward-spiraling costs of their campaigns. When it costs money to get someone’s attention, lobbyists who “sell” their cause on the merits are at a distinct disadvantage.

Lobbying can and should be an honorable profession. But it has been tainted by a system that too often rewards lobbyists who immerse themselves in the Washington money game.

Obama banned contributions from federally registered lobbyists during his campaign, but has tapped registered lobbyists to serve in his administration. Already the administration is seeking waivers from provisions of the same executive order for certain nominees. But the existence of waivers is appropriate especially if the administration (1) further empowers the Office of Government Ethics, and not just the Office of Management and Budget, which is headed by an Obama appointee, to play a major role in determining whether a waiver is warranted, (2) OGE promulgates the clear and reasonable standards by which such a waiver may be granted, (3) ensures the process is transparent by making these waivers easily accessible to the public and (4) does not abuse the authority or use it too frequently. Certainly the lobbying community is full of individuals whose experience, competence and commitment — rather than the ability to raise, bundle and disperse money — can help the president implement his agenda.

As the federal government has grown in size and scope, the number of lobbyists has exploded. Moreover, the lobbying profession, once the reserve of a small cadre of insiders, is now seen as a way to make the big bucks, even for staffers who are still wet behind the ears when they turn in their Capitol ID badges. And many lobbyists, especially those who are referred to as the K Street crowd, have perfected the “pay-to-play” system in Washington. Usually hired by monied special-interests, they are leading players in a system that revolves around campaign contributions given and bundled, wining and dining Members of Congress and their staffs, and also providing them trips to desirable destinations.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The courts have generally viewed lobbying as a constitutionally protected activity, covered under the First Amendment, which protects “the right of the people … to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”

The lobbying profession has become tainted because so many of them have become so immersed raising money and piling up chits to be used later. By giving campaign contributions, they ensure access to powerful politicians at key moments. By bundling a large number of contributions, they guarantee themselves not only access and influence but a seat at the table — and trust me, there are not that many seats. The good news is that the courting of Members and their staffs at high-end bars and restaurants, which was also once a staple of a lobbyists’ life in Washington, has been significantly curtailed by the lobby and ethics bill enacted during the 110th Congress, as have the trips.

But as long as the current campaign finance system remains essentially in place, the parasitic relationship between lobbyists and Washington politicians will continue. The politicians are desperate for the campaign cash and will continue to hit up the lobbyists whose clients want action from Congress. The lobbyists know that playing the Washington money game is the way to produce results, and thus make their clients happy.

The only way to redeem the lobbying profession is to relegate the pay-to-play system to the dust bin by changing the way candidates finance their campaigns.

One part of that answer is to make it more affordable for candidates for Congress to buy airtime to communicate with their voters over the publicly owned airwaves. Ever-more-expensive television advertising consumes the majority of any campaign budget.

Another part of the answer is to establish a system of partial public financing, which reduces candidates’ reliance on special-interest money. No one is better placed to speak to the urgency of these changes than our new president, who raised more money than any candidate in our nation’s history.

Until these changes are made, too many lobbyists will continue to play a negative role in our nation’s politics and continue to merit the disdain they have earned to date.

Severing the financial umbilical cord between politicians and lobbyists is the first step in reforming the term “lobbyist” and the public’s opinion of Congress. If lobbying is reduced to a battle of competing ideas, then it’s a fair fight. But if the folks with the most money can buy the most time and attention, they will get their way. And the public’s perception of government won’t change — and it shouldn’t. As long as pay to play remains the most effective way to achieve results in this town, “lobbyist” and “Washington” will remain dirty words for the rest of the nation.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and also heads McGehee Strategies, a public-interest consulting business.