By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, December 15, 2008
We here in Washington are anticipating a stampede of lobbyists, influence peddlers, media consultants, paid "experts" and self-styled crusaders. Who brought us this onslaught of special pleaders? Why, it's Barack Obama, the man who vowed to "change" how Washington works and banish from the political arena all those deplorable "special interests." This is one Obama promise doomed to fail.
The only way to eliminate lobbying and special interests is to eliminate government. The more powerful government becomes, the more lobbying there will be. So, paradoxically, Obama's ambitions for more expansive government will promote special pleading. You need only watch the response to the expected "economic stimulus" plan -- totaling perhaps $700 billion -- to verify this eternal truth. "A Lobbying Frenzy for Federal Funds," read the headline of one Post story.
There's more to come. Obama envisions refashioning a third of the economy: the health-care sector, representing about 16 percent of gross domestic product; the energy sector, nearly 10 percent of GDP; and the financial sector (banks, securities brokers, insurance companies), about 8 percent of GDP. There will be a vast mobilization of interests: from radiologists to renewable energy producers; from mutual funds to hospitals. Says Bara Vaida, the respected lobbying reporter for National Journal: "This will be a bonanza for K Street" -- the symbolic hub of Washington lobbyists.
Lobbyists get a bad rap, which is why politicians routinely vilify them. People want to blame their discontents on sleazy influence merchants. Periodic scandals confirm the stereotypes: the Jack Abramoffs who wine and dine legislators. But mainly the anti-lobbying bias is mythology.
Myth No. 1 is that lobbying is anti-democratic, because it frustrates "the will of the people." Just the opposite is true: Lobbying is an expression of democracy.
We are a collection of special interests, and one person's special interest is another's job or moral crusade. If people can't organize to influence government -- to muzzle or shape its powers -- then democracy is dead. The "will of the people" is rarely observable because people disagree and have inconsistent desires. Of course, the "public good" should always triumph, but what represents the public good is usually debatable. The idea that the making of these choices should occur in a vacuum -- delegated to an all-knowing political elite -- is profoundly undemocratic. Lobbyists sharpen debate by providing an outlet for more constituencies and giving government more information.
A second myth is that lobbying favors the wealthy, including corporations, because only they can afford the cost. As a result, government favors the rich and ignores the poor and middle class. Actually, the facts contradict that.
Sure, the wealthy extract privileges from government, but mainly they're its servants. The richest 1 percent of Americans pay 28 percent of federal taxes, says the Congressional Budget Office. About 60 percent of the $3 trillion federal budget goes for payments to individuals -- mostly the poor and middle class. You can argue that those burdens and benefits should be greater, but if the rich were all powerful, their taxes would be much lower. Similarly, the poor and middle class do have powerful advocates. To name three: AARP for retirees; the AFL-CIO for unionized workers; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for the poor.
A final myth is that lobbying consists mostly of privileged access to legislators or congressional staffers -- and that campaign contributions buy that access. Although this happens, it's not the main story.
"Lobbying is much more substantive and out in the open than its ugly caricature. Lobbyists primarily woo lawmakers with facts," writes Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, the veteran lobbying reporter. If lawmakers "see merit in a position and there is a public outcry in its favor, that's the way they tend to vote." Lobbying is marketing: trying to transform a group's narrow interest into something perceived as the "public interest."
In 2008, there are about 16,000 active registered lobbyists -- people with sufficient congressional contacts that by law they're required to report, says the Center for Responsive Politics. That's up about 50 percent since 1998. But there are also hordes of public relations consultants, advertising managers, Internet advisers and policy experts primed to influence government. When political scientist James Thurber of American University counted all these others, the influence-lobbying complex ballooned to 261,000.
Under Obama, this complex will expand. Of course, it can capture public policy for private purposes. Sometimes this involves discreet favors: budget "earmarks," tax breaks or regulatory preferences. Though large for recipients, most are small in the context of government. What matter most are the major policies that determine government's overall size and direction. Lobbying ensures robust debate on these issues, and whether the ultimate outcome is for good or ill, it's democracy in action.