By Megan Carpentier
Saturday, May 24, 2008 12:00 AM
The presidential race turned into a game of hot potato this week, as Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama tried to bat away accusations of ties to lobbyists. In this game, the candidates are reflecting the views of (or, depending on your point of view, pandering to) the public. Polls consistently find that a majority of Americans hold lobbyists in low regard, and in one recent survey more than 70 percent of respondents favored reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington. I can't argue with the numbers. But as a former lobbyist myself, I can say that McCain and Obama are perpetuating some misunderstandings and myths about lobbyists. Sure, there are people like Jack Abramoff who have made millions gaming the system and partnering with corrupt politicians. But there are also plenty of decent, hard-working people who don't bribe Congress and have never had three martinis for lunch. These, as Dick Wolf would say, are their stories.
Myth 1: Lobbyists are all wealthy fat cats.
Oh, how I wish that were true; I might never have left the profession. Certainly, some lobbyists make out exquisitely. The Post's Citizen K Street series last year profiled lobbying star Gerald Cassidy, whose personal wealth surpasses $125 million. But many, many lobbyists toil from morning until night -- checking emails, making phone calls, writing issue papers and, yes, lobbying members of Congress and their staffers -- for salaries that make it hard to cover the cost of living in Washington. My first lobbying job after graduate school in 2001 paid $32,000 a year. That's hardly the $145,000-$160,000 (plus bonus) that first-year lawyers can expect at Washington's big firms. It's also only a little more than what a fresh college graduate makes for answering constituent mail in a congressman's office. But, with more than 30,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, not everyone can be rolling in dough or else who would do the grunt work?
Myth 2: Lobbyist is shorthand for soulless corporate shill.
Lobbyists get all kinds of flak for being intellectually promiscuous and ethically-lacking, because people assume they work for whichever, and however many, corporate clients that are willing to pay them. Some lobbyists do have a stable of different corporate clients. But many lobbyists work in-house. And it's not just corporations that hire them. So do trade associations and consumer groups, universities and state governments. There's literally a lobbyist for every cause and every issue you can think of, and a bunch of ones you've never thought of. Most people who lobby focus on a specific set of issues about which they feel pretty strongly. It's hard not to. Working 60 hours or more a week on an issue you don't care about burns you out. (I tried and failed.) Oh, and even some of those promiscuous corporate lobbyists also take work for smaller organizations representing issues near and dear to their hearts. Like everything else in life, nothing is black and white.
Myth 3: Lobbyists don't contribute anything of value to the political system.
Some lobbyists are worthless, I can't argue with that. But most of them do serve a purpose. Thousands of bills are introduced in Congress each year, hundreds will come up for consideration, and most of them generate very little constituent input. To help members decide how to vote, it would be awfully inefficient if Congressional staffers reinvented-the-wheel to research every issue. Instead, they usually try to weigh what different lobbyists with specific knowledge about that issue say. The process often helps identify why a bill may or may not be in the interest of a district, along with unintended consequences of a particular section.
Myth 4: Lobbyists participate in politics only to help their clients or employer.
The vast majority of lobbyists started life as Congressional or campaign staffers -- that's one reason there's a whole section ethics law dealing with when former staffers are allowed to lobby. Knowing how Capitol Hill works and the people who work there isn't something you can pick up from a book or by reading the news, so working there is practically a prerequisite for lobbying. It's one of the first things you get asked about in a job interview, even years into your lobbying career. But what it means in terms of the kind of people that end up as lobbyists is that they are passionate about politics. They don't put in time on the Hill because they hope it will someday lead to a more lucrative lobbying job. Similarly, they don't leave their family and friends for months on the campaign trail because they hope it will be good for business. They go back to politics because it's addictive, and they can't stay away.
Myth 5: Lobbying is a game of quid pro quo in which campaign contributions are exchanged for votes.
No lobbyists I know expect their political contributions to get them legislative support. There may be a vague hope that giving to a campaign might get them 15 minutes of face time with a staffer for a legislative pitch. But even maxing out the donation limits -- $2,300 for an individual or $5,000 for a Political Action Committee ¿ doesn't get you a ton of attention from a politician who needs anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars (for Congressional races) or several million dollars (for presidential candidates) each cycle. A lot of lobbyists have tried to get noticed by becoming so-called bundlers, recruiting donations from other people and turning over all the checks at once. But with hundreds of bundlers bundling, even that isn't going to get you much attention anymore.
In my experience, most lobbyists give primarily because of the pressure to give. Politicians treat donations as their due, rather than as a favor for which they asked. And, as when the collection plates comes around in church, no one wants to be caught not tithing. I would get several of calls and e-mails every day from campaigns and other lobbyists soliciting contributions, even when I didn't work for an organization with a PAC and made hardly any money. And when Congress was at one point supposedly contemplating banning lobbyist donations altogether, I heard lots of comments like "ohpleaseohplease let them make it illegal." They didn't.