Commentary: Has K Street met its match?

October 7, 2012

Some say corporate lobbyists are less popular than our elected officials. Every president I can remember has promised to close the revolving door of government officials who become lobbyists and vice versa. Yet the number of lobbyists walking the streets of D.C. has never been bigger.

But the traditional lobby power structure is about to collapse, and the wisdom of the crowd is slamming the door.

It started with SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. The best lobbyists money could buy were hired by organizations with deep pockets. SOPA was set to sail through Congress with a strong bipartisan majority in January.

Until a strange and wonderful thing happened. The digital community spoke up. It was a genuine grass-roots effort without a leader and no known organized group bankrolling the effort. The Twittersphere went wild. Wikipedia went dark. Hundreds of thousands of e-mails went to 535 elected officials in Washington. Senators and members of Congress had never seen anything like it before, and they changed their minds. In a hurry. And then they changed their votes. SOPA crashed and burned in a matter of weeks. The traditional high-paid lobbyists never saw it coming and were powerless to act.

The voice of the digital crowd silenced the traditional whisper campaign coming from K Street.

A new and powerful tool was born: Crowdlobbying.

The Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act followed and passed in April of this year with true bipartisan support. The National Venture Capital Association and its chairwoman emeritus, Kate Mitchell, breathed life into a collection of ideas, and packaged them into the JOBS act. Steve Case, atop his Startup America platform, spread the message far and wide to entrepreneurs in 50 states. I personally weighed in. Once again, leveraging the Web, citizen-led democracy triumphed in the midst of a bitter partisan climate.

And then came Uber, an app that lets you order a black sedan with your iPhone. This is the company that cleverly surprised riders this year with its own motorcade on President’s Day. The D.C. Council was set to pass a price-fixing law in June, pushed by the taxi commission, setting minimum rates for Uber in order to “protect” regulated taxi cabs. The D.C. Council heard from thousands. They stopped in their tracks, and the law was never passed (though proposals continue to surface).

The uproar is not just in Washington. In August of this year, the Massachusetts Bureau of Standards concluded that GPS was not an approved way to measure distances and charge fees. They wanted to shut down Uber. Again, the crowd spoke. This time Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s office intervened to let Uber grow and flourish in state.

Can this trend continue? Each of the four examples above succeeded without a traditional hierarchy or lobbyist driving the result. They were all fed by the grass roots — people like you and me with powerful digital weapons.

I think that this is an important trend to watch. The crowd will continue to catch lightning in a bottle, and influence legislation, albeit in an unpredictable and haphazard way. And once we get past the presidential election, it will only intensify.

John Backus is the founder and managing partner of New Atlantic Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm based in Reston. He blogs regularly at navfund.com/blog and is @jcbackus on Twitter.

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