When you hear the word lobbyist, you might picture an old white man in a pin-striped suit paying big bucks for a fancy dinner with Senator so-and-so. In return, that Senator will do exactly what the lobbyist wants. At the same time, that Senator is probably money laundering through the political campaign contributions they receive. This is a common misrepresentation brought to you from all forms of media, like the very entertaining but wildly inaccurate movie Thank You for Smoking.
Politicians on both the left and the right share this message too. In May, an exchange of tweets from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) made news after they agreed that there should be a ban on former lawmakers taking paid lobbying positions. They are not the first to argue this, and there are often proposals from members of Congress to ban any government officers or employees from lobbying in the future.
This anti-lobbying sentiment has clearly soaked into public opinion about lobbyists, or vice-versa. A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 6 percent of Americans say lobbyists have high or very high honesty and ethical standards. It was last on the list of 22 professions surveyed, even below Congress. While the poll was released some six years ago, I doubt much has changed.
In fact, you are probably rolling your eyes at the irony that a blog post in defense of lobbyists is written by none other than a registered lobbyist.
My only saving grace is that I used to feel the same way you did. One of my very first jobs was working for former Utah State Senator Jim Dabakis (D-SLC), someone who was and is outspoken about lobbyists’ influence in Utah’s legislature and, at the simplest level, is working to fight corruption. As an idealistic Democrat, I agreed with everything he said. I would NEVER be a lobbyist but instead a pure-hearted public servant for the rest of my life.
Then, I worked in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives and interacted with lobbyists often. Most of them used to be Congressional staff just like me. I realized that bans on former staff and members of Congress becoming lobbyists didn’t make much sense.
Lobbyists need experience in order to be good at their jobs. They have the institutional knowledge of how Congress works. Banning this so-called revolving door would be the same as hiring a driver’s education teacher for your child who didn’t know how to drive.
I also quickly learned that lobbyists represent real people. The first interest groups came about when people of similar interests pooled together their money to advocate for what they wanted. This still happens in modern day. For example, a group of seasonal business owners in Pennsylvania with so desperate a need for a workforce unique to their situation joined together to create the Seasonal Business Alliance. They hired us to help them, but they are normal business owners fighting for their livelihoods.
Lobbyists are real people too. They are professional young women, fathers and mothers, Catholics and Atheists. And yes, some lobbyists are old white men in pin-striped suits, but the fancy dinners rarely happen in the way you might think.
In fact, federal lobbyists have rules that clearly prohibit pay-for-play. We aren’t allowed to take Senators out to dinner or even buy Congressional staff a single cup of coffee. Most of us follow those rules, and those who don’t do and SHOULD get punished. Political corruption should never be tolerated.
I also believe in being required to disclose that I am a lobbyist through a federal registry, which is law and which I do. We have to say who funds our lobbying. I support increased transparency in federal campaign laws so that all forms of contributions are disclosed. I agree that campaign money purely given in a design to influence the outcome of legislation is unwise and never advise this strategy to clients. I believe that most anti-lobbying acts are intended to be anti-corruption bills, even if misguided.
Still, at the root of it, the United States’ First Amendment clearly protects the rights of people to share their ideals and to have a voice. James Madison, the father of our constitution, believed that the only way that we would be free of one faction having too much power is to allow all factions to speak. Lobbyists are just a bunch of different people advocating for a particular faction.
More than my belief that free speech is a fundamental human right, I also believe that lobbyists bring a lot to the table and are an important part of our government.
Most lobbyists are educated and are often experts in policy and government. Many of us have experience working in Congress or in the executive branch and know how the system works. We think strategically given our experience and therefore can help amplify the message of our client.
We are extra support to public officials and their staffs. Unfortunately, most government staff are not issue area experts, unless they have spent years in their respective executive branch departments or agencies. They are inundated with too much work and too little time. The salaries of Congressional staff make it hard to retain talent, with many staffers leaving to well, lobby, where they can obtain more competitive salaries. The size of Congressional offices are much too small to develop an expertise in every issue.
The private sector helps to fill the gap. Lobbyists provide factual, timely information to help Congress make decisions, because we are the experts in the issue area. While it might seem we are always attempting to influence the outcome of legislation, many of our lobbying activities are meant purely to be educational. Who wouldn’t want the experts informing government decisions?
What I often hear from my fellow-Democrats are that only big businesses have lobbyists. First, should businesses not have lobbyists? They are the ones who understand how legislation will affect their business and very likely people’s jobs and the overall economy.
Second, this just isn’t true. Labor groups have lobbyists, too. Women groups, both traditionally conservative and liberal, have lobbyists. Environmental groups have lobbyists, pig producers have lobbyists, and cancer researchers have lobbyists. You name an issue, and there is probably a lobbyist advocating for it.
I’m grateful that at the Ridge Policy Group, we are encouraged to pursue a diverse set of clients. A large portion of our clientele are non-profit organizations and local governments. We help them to the best of our ability, regardless of their means.
I’m also appreciative of how seriously our lobbying firm takes Governor Tom Ridge’s reputation. As a partner in our firm, we learn from his example and do our best to act with the upmost integrity with a goal for good governance. We always clearly say who we are representing. We are honest about opposition or push-back to our perspective. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it is also more effective. We can only gain respect and trust from members of Congress and their staff when we do that.
Even after I tell you all of this, you likely still have one thought: not everyone can afford lobbyists.
You’re right. They can’t.
But there is a lot you can do.
You can join an advocacy group that supports what you believe in. They will probably have a lobbyist that helps you refine your message to make your voice stand out even more.
You can go campaign for a candidate that you believe in.
You can go start a Facebook campaign.
You can go vote!
You can read all about how government functions and works and then apply what you’ve learned to advocate on an issue you care about.
You can write a letter to your member of Congress. In fact, as a lobbyist, one of the most effective tools we have is grassroots advocacy. We help our client’s meet directly with and contact their member of Congress. When we do this, we get way more response than if we just make a cold call meeting as a lobbyist and go in ourselves.
In both of my Hill offices, and in the offices of many of my colleagues, we always responded to constituents. Members of Congress work for their constituents far before they work for lobbyists. Trust me, most care about you more than they care about me.
But unfortunately, most people don’t engage with Congress or even their local governments. In a 2018 study by Public Religion Research Institute, they found that just 19 percent of people contacted an elected official, just 14 percent have volunteered for a group or cause, and just 12 percent have attended a community meeting such as school board or city council.
In the end, I don’t blame people for slamming lobbyists. I understand my former boss’s point of view. I know what people are actually mad about is this idea that someone else has a voice and they don’t.
But you can have a voice too.
You just have to use it.
This blog post was written for Ridge Policy Group by Zaida Ricker. Zaida helps to manage about half of the firm’s federal client portfolio. She is a pure-hearted lobbyist and life-long Democrat.