Lobbyists, Ethics, Earmarks

Lobbyists are not the most beloved creatures on earth. The very word “lobbyist” is practically an accusation these days. And that’s too bad, because there’s nothing bad, in principle, about what they do for a living. Fundamentally a lobbyist is a spokesperson. They speak to lawmakers and regulators, on behalf of a company or interest group, and thereby attempt to influence laws and policies. The worry, of course, is that they’re too good at their jobs, and that that gives the people they work for too much influence.

Here’s the story, from the Associated Press: THE INFLUENCE GAME: Lobbyists defend earmarks

What’s it like to be at Washington’s political ground zero? Ask Dave Wenhold, who trudges to work with two bull’s-eyes pinned to his back.
He’s a lobbyist and he earns part of his living fighting for special-interest earmarks, those prized pots of money that lobbyists vie for and critics decry.

So, why not just keep them away from lawmakers entirely? Well, first, because to petition your government is a fundamental democratic right. And if it’s my right to have my say, it’s also got to be my right to send someone to speak for me — after all, we’re not all eloquent, and we can’t all travel to where the lawmakers are. Note also that decision-makers actually need input, lest they make poorly-informed decisions. And it’s not just drug companies and such that employ lobbyists: so do charities and universities and municipal governments, for example.

So, what can we do?
1) Governments can put safeguards in place. Countries like Canada and the U.S. (and many others) have rules governing the behaviour of lobbyists. They usually have to register, for example: no secret lobbyists are allowed. Also, they’re allowed to talk to lawmakers, but not to give them money. Further, there are rules to limit the “revolving door” phenomenon, which sees lobbying firms and government agencies swapping personnel and practically guaranteeing conflict of interest. And so on. Of course, figuring out just the right set of safeguards — to maximize benefit and minimize risk — is hard.
2) The lobbyists can exercise ethical restraint. Individual restraint in a competitive domain is hard. Acting together is a little easier, though by no means trivial. The American League of Lobbyists, for example, has its Code of Ethics. Yes, plenty of room for skepticism there.

I think this might be one of the hardest problems in and around business ethics. Everyone agrees that businesses ought to obey “the rules of the game.” But how should they, and their representatives, behave when they get the opportunity to influence the rules themselves?

1 comment so far

  1. Dave Wenhold, President of ALL on

    Good article and excellent points. One of the things that most people don’t understand about the lobbying profession is how heavy regulated we already are and the lobbying community is fine with that. Just food for thought, what other profession out there has to report to the government 6 times a year on the following (mind you these are private companies too): how much they make, who pays them, what specific issues they are lobbying on, what specific agencies they meet with and who they give money to. The simple answer is NONE, not even the legislators have to report that!The misperception is that lobbying is all backroom deals and deception. The truth is much more mundane and boring. Sorry to disappoint those looking for a villain behind every tree. The truth is the value of a good lobbyist is that they bring legislators and their staff accurate and useful information for them to make educated decisions. A lobbyist’s reputation as an honest and accurate information messenger is the true value. What most people don’t know is that a lobbyist can’t lie or deceive a legislator or else they are never welcome in that office or others again.The demonization of the lobbying community is actually a travesty because as your article points out we are simply the messengers. Do you get mad at the postman because he fills your mailbox with bills? Of course not. What is even more ridiculous is that the media and the general public blame the ills of the country on the messengers. This is the most important point of this post and if you take nothing else away I hope this will resonate with you. Lobbyists DON’T VOTE! Your legislators are the ones that ultimately cast the vote and ultimately are accountable to you! I get a kick out of those that say the devil made me do it. What a cop out. At the end of the day, the legislators and the President are accountable to you because they voted one way or another.Are there areas that could be improved upon in the political process? Absolutely and we at the American League of Lobbyists(ALL) believe in good, transparent government that ensure anyone wanting to participate in the government process has a voice. As you mentioned most people don’t have the time or want to put years of training into learning the arcane ways that Washington works to lobby for themselves, that’s why they hire a professional. It’s a simple business decision. While they are running a company in Iowa they don’t have time to be in DC everyday making sure they government is not doing something to them so they hire someone that is here.ALL is open to all constructive comments in how to improve the system and open to those that would like to have a positive debate in how we can improve the system. Do I expect people to change their preconceived notions on what a lobbyist truly is and does? No, but hopefully through education and understanding you will realize that we are only the messengers and you need to hold those making the votes on these issues accountable. One final thought on ethics. An organization cannot dictate what moral compass a person follows but only give recommendations to try an avoid issues. There will always be bad apples in EVERY profession and Jack Abramoff is our poster child for that. The bottom line is that this guy was a crook and would have been a criminal in whatever profession he chose to be in. The system caught him and now he is paying the price and any other person that breaks the law should be subject to those penalties as well. A code of ethics would not have stopped this criminal from breaking the law. Ethics cannot be mandated onto a person, it must be ingrained in them and I am proud to say 99.99% of the lobbying profession represents their clients ethically, legally, accountably and with passion.


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