The President made history last week by hosting the first Twitter town hall. This was an event that allowed him to take questions via Twitter and answer them by, not tweeting, but talking. So it was more like a Twitter question box, really. Obama didn’t use Twitter because 140 characters isn’t enough to explain that 10 years of reduced tax revenues have existed alongside plummeting jobs figures, in direct opposition to Republican contentions that tax breaks are economic engines. Oh wait. The President never said that at all. I said that. Weirdly, I’m the only one saying it. Why isn’t anyone else saying that when it seems crystal clear to me that the pro-tax-cut agenda defies reality?
Anyway, I’m not here to talk about tax cuts. I’m here to talk about some tweets I saw during the townhall that busted on the practice of the President and Congress of dealing with lobbyists. People really don’t like lobbyists. They call them shady and slimy and all kinds of other things. But really? Why hate on lobbyists? Lobbying is the only occupation specifically allowed in the Constitution, apart from the President, Congress and the Supreme Court.
Full disclosure: I’m kinda, sorta, a lobbyist. I’m registered as a lobbyist and I have to fill out paperwork attesting to my contributions to candidates and political action committees as a lobbyist but that’s where my lobbying activity really ends. I’m actually just a project manager on the lobbying team of a non-profit so everything I do supports lobbying which counts in the definition of lobbying but doesn’t entail any actual, you know, lobbying. Confused? Yeah, me too. I just do what the lawyers at work tell me to do. Anyway, despite my status as a lobbyist, my influence over Congress begins and ends with the time I wrote a glowing reference of my daycare to a woman asking about it on a neighborhood listserv. It turned out she was in Congress and she took my reference to heart and ended up enrolling her son. As for my influence of Congressional staff, well, that ended when my husband left his Hill job for the private sector.
Anyway, I’m around lobbyists all day long and I totally dig the whole act of lobbying. Lobbyists, professional and volunteer, are very often industry exerts and can shed light on specific interests and information that can positively influence lawmaking. The term comes from the old days when representatives for special interests used to hang around a hotel lobby in DC waiting for legislators to come back to their rooms so they could talk to them. The fact that they were allowed to wait there and have those conversations is codified in the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That’s right. Every citizen of this great nation is allowed the petition the government. By extension, that means every citizen can appoint a proxy to petition on their behalf and can pay them – or not – via private business agreement and the government can’t restrict it per the Commerce Clause. Groovy, isn’t it? You can pick up the phone tomorrow and call you elected officials and lobby them. If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can hire a professional to do it for you. It’s a glorious example of the Constitution made manifest.
Despite this, lobbyists get a bad rap. They’re blamed for all the nasty twists and turns of lawmaking and they are accused of peddling the worst kind of influences. But it’s not the lobbying that’s the problem, if you ask me. It’s the Supreme Court. Specifically, it’s all the times that the Supreme Court ruled that writing big checks to further an official’s campaign is the same, Constitutionally speaking, as petitioning the government for redress of grievance. Campaign contributions are considered political speech which, the Supreme Court says, is protected under the First Amendment. Not only that, they say corporations are entitled to the same First Amendment protections as individuals.
So what does that all mean in the world of lobbying? When does it go from Motherhood and Apple Pie Americana to shady, slimy, lobbying?
Probably no one reading this thinks there’s anything wrong with a group of citizens requesting a meeting with their Member of Congress to talk about how bad the potholes in town are getting and lobby him to do something about it. That’s all good, right? Citizen advocacy. Now, what if the local asphalt dealer went to the Member and said that a law that mandated pothole filling would be good for the town and also good for his business? Still ok, still valid provincial interest, still not shady. If a national asphalt manufacturing firm that’s traded on the NASDAQ shows up and says that filling potholes is good for America, that’s still ok, though a little less homespun and more about corporate profits but hey. Profits are the American way.
However, if the big asphalt company shows up with a check for a few grand to ease the members path to reelection,THAT’S where it crosses a line, if you ask me. Because then the meeting isn’t about the potholes. It isn’t about the provincial interests the Member is there to serve. It isn’t about doing the right things for individual or business constituents. No, it’s about playing “I’ll scratch your election coffers if you raise my stock prices”. The result of that is not just pro-asphalt policies, but pro-asphalt access to the Member the next time Asphalt Inc. needs something. Like a new corporate tax loophole or something. And if the Member is prioritizing meetings for campaign donors, or spending more time hosting fundraisers for his campaign where he spends time with lobbyists bearing checks, or sucking up to donors with his policy statements and proposed laws, well, that’s less time he’s spending helping out the people at home. The ones who elected him. The ones he represents. The ones who only have a voice and a vote and shouldn’t have to compete against piles of money to be heard.
If I ruled the world, lobbyists would be allowed to petition the government 24/7 but they’d only be allowed to do it with facts, figures, ideas, and inspiration*. Not with money. Money corrupts the conversation between the government and the citizenry. Money corrupts the electoral process. Money makes talk cheap when talk is what I believe the Framers really meant when they granted citizens the right to speak their piece in public, in a house of worship, in the press, and in the halls of power. Talk should matter more than money. Lobbyists should be allowed to talk but that’s all they should be allowed to do.
*This is, in fact, how my organization lobbies. We have paid lobbying staff and volunteer advocates but we do NOT give any money to any candidates, parties or political action committees. So it can be done.