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COMMENTARY: Why so much money gets spent on lobbying

Recently, The New York Times noted that companies and lobbying firms in Washington are stocking up on Republican lobbyists in anticipation of strong GOP gains in Congress this November. The going rate? Salaries now begin at $300,000, the newspaper reported, and can go as high as $1 million.

This might seem like an outlandish amount of money to pay people even if they are unusually persuasive. Yet when you realize that $3.5 billion got spent on lobbying in 2009, and that there were 2000 lobbyists prowling the hallways of Capitol Hill on the financial reform bill alone, you get an inkling of what's up: That much money wouldn't be involved unless lobbying paid off for the people footing the bill.

It does, because over the last few decades there has been a profound shift in attitude toward Washington. Where the most common refrain a member of Congress once heard was, "Get government off my back," today - despite whatever you might read about mistrust of government - it's very much the opposite: "Put government on my side."

People from all over the country deluge Washington on behalf of their companies, trade associations, non-profit organizations, labor unions, business groups, health associations, environmental causes.... Every industry, cause and, it sometime seems, enterprise and organization in America wants something from Congress or the federal bureaucracy.

The people they hire to help them get it are very, very good at what they do. Lobbying is hard work: it requires a lot of old-fashioned shoe leather plus close analysis of arcane language, searching for compromises that will benefit a particular client, carving out exceptions from the general rule and then justifying them in ways that suggest it's all in the national interest.

And while it's easy to be cynical about what lobbyists do, they represent real people with real interests, and often play an important role for members of Congress. A good lobbyist will be one of the most knowledgeable people in the country about his or her field. They provide information about the contents of complex and arcane bills, and especially what impact those bills will have on their industry or business and on Americans in general.

The result is that for a member of Congress trying to bone up on a complex issue, lobbyists often supply information no one else can muster.

Yet there are aspects to lobbying that make ordinary Americans squirm. It is not a transparent enterprise. It usually takes place beyond our reach: behind closed office doors or over emails, text messages, Blackberries, chance encounters, and cocktail-party conversations on the exclusive DC social circuit.

Lobbyists ply their trade not just by supplying information, but also by buying access through campaign contributions, contributions to members' favorite charities, and whatever other tactics they can dream up. And though lobbyists say that all they want is a chance to make their case, that's only partly true - what they really want is access as close to the decision-making point as possible, because in the end what they're aiming for is a specific result: a vote for or against a particular provision, or legislative language favoring their cause.

Lobbyists are not always successful: if they were, this year's financial reform package would have been strangled at birth. When the tide of public opinion is overwhelming, no array of lobbyists can hold it back.

But every piece of legislation requires compromises, definitions, debate over who gets included or excluded, and tweaks that the public mostly ignores; that's where lobbyists excel. And these issues often last well beyond the legislative debate: they carry over into the explicit rule-making done by federal bureaucrats.

The first-amendment rights of lobbyists to ply their trade have long been established. So mitigating their influence and amplifying the voice of ordinary Americans is no small task. But it's not impossible. Voters need to be able to know immediately who is lobbying for what, how much they're spending, and who's funding them; the current situation in which special interests often fight disclosure or hide behind innocuous names is unacceptable in a democracy.

At the same time, the various research arms of Congress - like the highly regarded Congressional Budget Office - ought to be buttressed so they can fully perform their role of providing unbiased, reliable information to decision-makers. Legislators and their staffs need more time than the leadership often gives them to study legislation and come to their own conclusions about it.

And lobbyists' undoubted influence on elections should be circumscribed: It's time to insist on total disclosure about all aspects of lobbying, to restrict campaign funds to what can mostly be raised within their constituency, and perhaps even to enact public funding of congressional campaigns.

(Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)