Fear and Loathing in Lobbyland

By Alex Biles, University of Michigan

In his latest column, my colleague Tom Pavone decries what he sees as the demise of plebeian lobbying in our country. The Founders designed a system to protect marginalized minorities and Tom views our contemporary system of lobbying as an impediment to that goal. Rather, he argues, lobbyists serve a single minority—the wealthy—at the expense of the rest of the citizenry.

There are rich details and good points in Tom’s piece. In fact, I’ll begin by stating that I’m partial to the argument that politically-connected interest groups in Washington tend to do more harm than good. But I believe he attacks lobbying from an incorrect angle and I disagree with his proposal to ameliorate its current state. Not to mention the fact that I believe lobbying is responsible for lots of good, too.

First of all, lobbying is intrinsically good for democracy. As Tom alluded, the ability to petition our government is a right protected by the First Amendment. And I honestly believe that most efforts to engage politicians are done with some degree of good intentions.

Many of the 17,000 registered lobbyists in Washington promote populist ideals, pushing for proposals that most Americans would consider noble. The Sierra Club uses its resources and clout to lobby for environmental protections. Likewise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce looks out for the interests of small and medium-sized businesses. These are not anomalies.

Even the oil companies that we love to vilify lobby against regulations, resulting in lower prices for consumers.

Tom seems to make his argument under the assumption that lobbying should mostly represent the interests of marginalized groups, and that the majority of outlays coming from the financial, manufacturing, and energy sectors proves otherwise.

But that view is inaccurate.

Take financial derivatives, for instance. Despite being poorly regulated prior to the recent meltdown, derivatives serve extremely beneficial purposes for growing the American economy. They allow businesses to hedge risks that they are ill-equipped to handle by trading for risks in areas where they specialize. This grants companies—large and small—more reliable access to credit that they can use to invest in new technology, erect new facilities, hire more employees and perhaps more importantly, stay in business.

Thanks to lobbying from firms like Wal-Mart, the U.S. boasts some of the most affordable food prices in the world. To think that marginalized minorities, including the poor, are somehow excluded from enjoying these benefits flirts with conspiracy.

Lobbying from the financial and corporate sectors is not merely a self-serving tool for the rich. It has the ability to greatly enhance the lives of ordinary Americans through influence that private citizens would never be able to attain.

(I should note that Tom touches upon the theme of increasing income inequality in his critique of lobbying, citing the growing salaries of Fortune 500 CEOs. This is a theme of great interest to me and I plan to do it justice in a future piece. Please don’t consider its exclusion from this piece as an act of neglect.)

In Tom’s piece, the suggestion that there is some connection between lobbying and women’s earnings, along with the assertion that “racial segregation is as severe now as it has ever been” is shaky and I won’t address it here either. But I will certainly step up to the plate to combat the perception that outsider influence in Washington is mostly the act of sinister corporations.

The non-partisan Center for Representative Politics’ Open Secrets website features a database highlighting total expenditures on campaigns and lobbying since 1989. The financial support of the top 16 “heavy hitters” comes to the tune of $552.9 billion, almost exclusively going to Democratic politicians. These “heavy hitters” consist primarily of labor unions.

“How are teacher’s unions supposed to compete with the financial resources of Goldman Sachs?” asks Tom. The short answer is, ahem, they do.

Since 1989, the National Education Association—the largest teachers union in the U.S.—has spent $36,312,895 on political influence compared to Goldman Sachs’ $20,707,545. In fact, 60 percent of the latter’s expenditures went to Democratic causes that typically support teachers, African Americans, and rights for same-sex couples anyway.

One issue I have with Tom’s piece is its tendency to associate lobbying with perceived social ills that serve as his justification for why our nation lags behind other advanced democracies when it comes to certain issues. But by all indications, the facts don’t make this a particularly compelling explanation. There’s certainly no lack of financial pull on the left. Political will is a completely different matter.

That’s not to say that lobbying by business interests didn’t influence the political opposition—warranted or not—to further government intervention in healthcare by establishing a single-payer system, for example. On the contrary, it’s precisely that level of organization coupled with financial resources that allow for effective lobbying. And that’s the reason for why teachers unions are so powerful and able to shoot down educational reform that threatens their vested interests.

Perhaps this is also the reason why there is a lack of a strong affirmative action or gay rights lobby. A lack of resources and organizational ability has prevented the formation of effective interest groups. This is part of the ugly side of lobbying, where established interests crowd out the effect that a single issue lobby has. The optimist in me argues that it’s just a matter of time before the growing public support for same-sex rights among the states materializes itself into an effective lobby or is leveraged into a more significant part of the Democratic Party platform.

However, in improving our current structure we must ensure that we don’t compromise vital interests in the name of anti-lobbyist rhetoric. Let us not jump to reactionary policy prescriptions driven by fear and loathing.

This brings me to addressing Tom’s policy prescription for lobbying, which is to impose a cap on expenditures. There’s no doubt that this is a more sage solution than the pipe dream of banning lobbying outright, but it’s still flawed. Tom wants to make sure “all lobbyists are created equal” and doesn’t think it’s fair for a Goldman Sachs lobbyist to have precedence over his or her counterparts from the NAACP or Freedom to Marry.

But I see several problems with this approach, including the rise of radical and dangerous fringe lobbies—sorry lefties, the National Rifle Association is not fair game (Also, Tom, be careful around gun rights advocates when you proclaim that they’re not being ‘marginalized.’ Every interest group will tell you that they’re ‘marginalized.’).

More importantly, any attempt to level the playing field implicitly suggests that all lobbies are created equal, and therefore of equal importance. And that’s not a future I would like to entertain. It takes great work to organize an effective lobby and by depriving it of the qualities that empowered it in the first place, with it you take the relevance of the democratic process.

The United Automobile Workers’ opposes free trade agreements on the grounds that such policies will result in manufacturing job losses. In contrast, the National Automobile Dealers Association supports free trade agreements because of the growth that imports can provide car and truck dealers by increasing the numbers of sellers, and thus competition. The relevance of these interests and the importance of a market for skilled, influential representatives for both parties is clearly evident.

Additional questions I have for Tom are: what makes him believe that a cap on lobbying is immune to corruption while an outright ban is not, especially when he cites the loopholes in the 2006 Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act? Even in a dream scenario, wouldn’t lobbies still be able to distinguish themselves through non-pecuniary means and enact precedence in that matter?

Yes, the current system is in need of reform—and I’m all for improving it, particularly through legislation that enhances accountability and transparency for voters (personally, I’m partial to required NASCAR jerseys for all representatives)—but if Thank You for Smoking taught us anything, it’s that American lobbying is one mixed bag.

Alex Biles is a co-founder of The New Student Union



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


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