Column: Why 'lobbyist' shouldn't be a dirty word

I am going to say a dirty word. Lobbyist.

I am not sure if lobbyist ranks above or below politician, but both words evoke mistrust and derision.

Even more shocking, I like most lobbyists, and I respect what they do.

When did you last read the U.S. Constitution? I would suggest reading the First Amendment. It says, in part: "Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The drafters realized the importance of protecting lobbying precisely because the colonies were denied that right by the English crown.

If lobbying is a constitutionally protected right, why do so many view it in such negative terms? There is no doubt that some lobbyists have engaged in unethical practices. There are ample examples of abuse.

We think of lobbyists as "hired guns" representing "special interests." This may come as a surprise, but all interests are "special." If lobbyists pursue something for me or my group, it is good. If they pursue benefits for others, those are the special interests.

Most Americans believe that only large corporations or wealthy individuals use lobbyists. Nothing could be more untrue.

When I taught courses about lobbying, I asked students how many organizations they belonged to. Most students guessed three to five. I then asked students to open their wallets or purses and make a list of all the organizations they were associated with.

Many were members of a religious group, all were part of the university, most belonged to several social and civic organizations, unions or professional associations. Many were members of political interest groups ranging from a political party, environmental group, prolife or prochoice groups and many others. By the time they were finished, most students belonged to 12 to 20 groups. Almost all of them were represented by lobbyists.

Why do we join groups? Self-interest. Sometimes we expect economic rewards, such as higher wages (unions, professional associations), discounts (AAA, AARP) and sometimes for the benefit of group insurance on cars, homes and our lives.

Others join groups to achieve a specific goal. Some of us want to restrict guns; others want to make sure government imposes no restrictions on guns. Many join environmental groups to protect wildlife, water, the quality of the air or because they are concerned about climate change.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many joined groups to protest the Vietnam War. Today many join groups to make sure veterans get the health care, educational and jobs benefits we believe they deserve. Where would the civil rights movement have been without groups such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the NAACP? All of these groups used lobbyists.

Finally, some join groups for social benefits. Fraternal groups like the Moose, Elks and Eagles are examples. Others join the yacht club or country club to associate with like-minded individuals and make professional contacts.

Political candidates often portray their opponent as a "tool of the special interests." This has become a primary issue in the congressional District 13 race where Democrat Alex Sink has labeled her opponent, David Jolly, a lobbyist for special interests.

Jolly, a D.C. lobbyist for the past half-dozen years, terminated his lobbying contracts on Nov. 1, 2013. This has not stopped the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from airing ads stating, "David Jolly's proud to be a lobbyist." The Jolly campaign responded by getting Mark Lunsford, whose daughter Jessica was raped and murdered in 2005, to praise Jolly's lobbying in getting funding for the U.S. Marshal's Service to track sexual offenders.

In the 1950s, an ambitious U.S. senator eloquently defended lobbyists on the floor of the Senate. He called lobbyists "expert technicians and capable of explaining complex and difficult subjects in a clear, understandable fashion."

The senator described how lobbyists prepared briefs, legislative analysis and even draft legislation. Lobbyists are "masters of their subject and, in fact, they frequently can provide useful statistics and information not otherwise available."

Finally, the senator argued that since congressional representation is based on geographical boundaries, "the lobbyists who speak for the various economic, commercial and other functional interests of the country serve a very useful purpose and have assumed an important role in the legislative process."

This senator clearly thought lobbyists provided a vital service to our political system. This senator, John F. Kennedy, would soon be elected president and continued to praise lobbyists during his administration.

Darryl Paulson is professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He lives in Palm Harbor.

Column: Why 'lobbyist' shouldn't be a dirty word 02/07/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 4:10pm]

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