Misdeeds by few give job a bad rep, but lobbyists actually face heightened scrutiny and transparency
Some 25,000 lobbyists ply their trade in Washington these days, depending on how the government's registration lists are compiled, and most lobbyists in town will say 99.9% of them are totally honest, upright citizens eager to do their jobs in an ethical way.
But that's far from the impression that most people get, judging by the congressional campaign ads running all across the country at the moment, in the lead-up to a midterm election that could swing ownership of the House to the Democrats.
Ironically, though, the huge media coverage given to the misdeeds of supervillain-lobbyist Jack Abramoff; Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), Tom DeLay (R-TX), Bob Ney (R-OH), and William Jefferson (D-LA); and others caught up in lobbying scandals in fact illustrates the much closer scrutiny and transparency of the lobbying world today.
That political candidates seek to portray themselves as anti-DC establishment and unbeholden to lobbyists - for instance, millionaire Arizona Senate contender Jim Pederson, who says his wealth makes him independent of special interests - is nothing new. But in our days of pervasive media, pockets of corruption can be highlighted to make it seem endemic within the lobbying world.
"Lobbying is less prone to corruption than, say, 50 to 100 years ago," says Dr. Rogan Kersh, associate dean and professor at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service.
Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), readily concedes that the image of lobbyists ranks right down there with used-car salesman, but notes that despite inflammatory campaign rhetoric, lobbyists won't stop existing.
"I'm not going to kid you that our reputation is stellar," Miller says. "But it's not necessarily hurting us doing business. There's a real, fundamental need for us. You think we have a bad system now? Without us, just see what kind of government we'd have then."
Kersh says that the modern history of lobbying stems from an expansion of the federal government in the late '60s and early '70s, which led to an explosion in the number of lobbyists, to deal with correspondingly more complex legislation. A typical bill today is a thick stack of paper that, frankly, few members have time to read all the way through.
"The advantage of lobbyists is that they've focused on an issue or two and can put together a compelling report," Kersh says. "It's not that they don't spin things, but they know not to go too far or they lose credibility."
What's more, contrary to the stereotype of lobbyists lurking outside the offices of legislators, bags of money figuratively in hand, lawmakers often lobby the lobbyists, like with Social Security reform, says Dr. Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College.
While ALL also does its part to help promote ethics in the field by sponsoring training, Kersh says that ethical practices typically spread within the lobbying field more informally.
"You absorb pretty quickly what the norms are, and you don't want to besmirch your organization," he adds. "Most lobbyists can quote you pretty clearly what gifts they can give, dinners they can take people to, etc."
Not everything about the lobbying profession is rosy, of course. Certainly donations to lawmakers may let special interests get a hearing that less wealthy individuals might not get, and lobbyists seem to be able to win passage of smaller bits of legislation for, say, a modification in the tax code, that don't necessarily seem to contribute to the greater good of society.
"There are [also] inadequate laws governing, in particular, some of the nonprofit groups" that serve as fronts for lobbying, Corrado says. "Even then, it's generally the case that the media will discern who's behind them," he adds. "As a result, there's more sunlight on lobbying than ever before."