Limit Legislators, Not Lobbyists

It is something of a cliché in contemporary politics to criticize lobbyists. Bashing lobbyists has become an almost commonplace campaign tactic employed by the so-called “populist” candidates, and implementing legislative restrictions on the profession frequently appears on lawmakers’ campaign platforms. The voting public, in turn, receives these suggestions eagerly, hoping to cut off what they view as the source of all the poor policies being produced by their state and federal legislatures.

Nevertheless, the blame often indiscriminately heaped upon lobbyists is a red herring used to lead voters away from the true origin of the anti-capitalist policies choking their individual liberty, businesses, and lives. It is an exploitation of the public’s unfamiliarity with the more intricate functions of republican governance. So long as my constituents fault the lobbyists for the bills that pass the legislature, surmises the wily politician, I will not be the one who has to answer for them.

The reality of the matter is that the immediate, vitriolic repulsion with which the word “lobbyist” is often greeted is more a result of a misunderstanding of the profession than any inherent immorality within it. This is not to say that individual lobbyists are all necessarily moral, but that the definition of the profession itself carries with it no moral denotations – connotations, certainly, but all are as sorely misplaced as the negative connotations contemporary cultural has associated with careers such as banker, salesman, insurer, and many others.

Examine, first, the definition of “lobbying.” “Lobbying” is any direct communication with legislators or their aides in hopes of achieving some legislative end. The word derives its origin from the location where such communication is most direct – the lobby of a legislative body. If one has ever e-mailed, called, written to, or visited a lawmaker to express a legislative interest (usually, drafting, supporting, or opposing a bill), that individual has effectively lobbied that legislator.

Strictly speaking, a “lobbyist” is any individual who participates in lobbying, but the word is more conventionally used to refer to individuals who participate in lobbying professionally (that is, for pay). That is how it will be used in the context of this article.

For the average voter, lobbyists are often considered to be malevolent forces working behind closed doors, greasing palms and twisting arms to get legislators to vote in a particular manner – assumingly, contrary to otherwise good judgment of the lawmaker had he not been led astray. This applies to all political ideologies on all votes, as there are invariably lobbyists on both sides of any bill, allowing the losing side to place blame on lobbyists for their defeat (see, for example, the virulent criticism levied against the NRA when last year’s push for more gun control through Congress failed). Interestingly, lobbyists are rarely credited for a legislative victory – a sign of how the commonplace perception of lobbying precludes the profession from possessing any positive aspects.

A closer examination at the legislative process reveals a much less sinister – even beneficial – interpretation of lobbying. First, lobbyists serve as a valuable source of information for lawmakers. Legislators cannot possibly be experts in every field that their legislative decisions affect, and so they must rely on lobbyists for such specialized knowledge. Lobbyists can give lawmakers insights into the consequences of pending legislation, especially consequences that the lawmakers may not have foreseen. I remember, for example, an occasion in the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly in which a lobbyist for a realtor group rushed into our office asking if we had a number for a lobbyist representing eBay (an electronic auctioning site). Apparently, a House member had proposed a bill relating to auctions that would have effectively outlawed eBay without meaning to do so, and so it was important for the lobbyist representing eBay to explain the situation to the legislator. Another more well-known example occurred in 2013 when the Florida Legislature accidentally banned all computers and smart phones via a hastily passed law relating to Internet cafes. A lobbyist representing technological and communications interests would have been able to spot such a glaring mistake.

On the other side of the coin, lobbyists provide valuable information to their clients. Keeping track of the slew of bills introduced every session and in all fifty-one of our nation’s legislatures is an impossible task to manage unless done on a full-time (or nearly so) basis. Even the press can only fit so much into a single paper or news cycle, so it is perfectly sensible that various groups would hire an agent (or even several) to keep an eye on elected officials. This applies not only to businesses, but to any group of citizens united in a common interest willing to pay someone to represent their concerns to lawmakers directly.

Further, lobbyists are an additional link between lawmakers and their constituents. Certainly, they are not authoritative voices for an entire district or even industry, but they do provide lawmakers with a good yardstick measurement of public opinion for a particular segment of their constituency. If, for example, a lawmaker planned to sneak a bill relating to Internet regulations (e.g. SOPA/PIPA) past their constituents, a lobbyist related to the industry could very easily confront the lawmaker and sound the alarm to his clients, who in turn could work to garner the support of the public at large (as did web companies in 2012).

Naturally, those most capable of fulfilling a lobbyist’s job description are former lawmakers. They possess invaluable firsthand experience of the legislative process not possible to anyone else, and they have existing relationships with their former colleagues that do not require the slow process of building an amicable, working dialogue between lawmaker and lobbyist.

And yet, voters jump at the opportunity to place restrictions on when (or even if) a former lawmaker can become a lobbyist. Not only that, but there exists a whole subset of laws and regulations relating to the profession wholly unrelated (and often contrary) to the protection of individual rights. One lobbyist, for example, expressed to me that there were certain disclosure laws that had to expire before he could meet and talk with legislative staffers outside of the Capitol.

Such laws are violations of both the right to free speech and the right to contract, preventing constituents from expressing their concerns to lawmakers and prohibiting them from hiring the individual most capable of performing the task. And if examined rationally, this is most often to the benefit of the lawmakers still in office. (After all, who would better know which lawmakers are most at risk of passing poor legislation, along with those most capable of being swayed, than one of their former colleagues?)

Quite contrary to the belief that all lobbyists are wrench in the smooth functioning of the legislative process, a lobbyist’s moral status is dependent upon his own adherence to a rational code of ethics and upon the nature of the cause he represents. Groups devoted to advocating policies contrary to individual rights cannot produce moral lobbyists, as the lobbyist is simply immoral by association and by advocating anti-capitalist policies (regardless of if he agrees with them, and especially if he does not, as that makes him a traitor to himself as much as it makes him a traitor to reason).

Lobbyists representing rational groups, on the other hand, are not moral simply because they work on behalf a group advocating for rational policies. Rather, their moral status depends upon their fidelity to the principles and concerns of their clients. Perhaps the most famous example of a lobbyist who did not do this is Wesley Mouch, industrialist Hank Rearden’s “man in Washington” in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Mouch continually undermined his own client and instead worked to advance anti-capitalist polices in the national legislature. However, a lobbyist hired for the purpose of keeping track of legislation relating to health care but who instead spends his time focusing on laws affecting cosmetologists and barbers, even if done with the intent of advancing capitalism, would also be behaving immorally, simply because he is forgoing his contractual obligations for which he is paid.

All that aside, neither moral nor immoral lobbyists have a monopoly of influence over lawmakers. Ultimately, the lawmakers are the ones with the authority to pass legislation, and they often do so against the sound arguments of rational lobbyists. Amidst all of Georgia’s state senators patting one another on the back for the imminent passage of an insurance mandate, Republican Sen. Tommie Williams (GA-19) took the well to call out the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB, the same that spearheaded the primary anti-Obamacare lawsuit) for being “on the wrong side” of the issue. He brought with him a small trophy of a Revolutionary Minuteman, granted to him by the NFIB for being a defender of small businesses. Earlier that same day, one of the few Republican senators silently against the bill had his arm twisted from above to “reconsider” (as an aide to a top Republican official gleefully put it) a news release from the Chamber of Commerce that he had asked to be distributed to his colleagues’ desks. The news release expressed the Chamber’s opposition to the mandate, and it was pulled from the desks. The Senate voted unanimously to pass the bill.[1]

Surely, there were lobbyists on the other side pushing the bill to be passed, but ultimately the passage of the bill was no more due to them than it was to the failure of the NFIB and the Chamber of Commerce to stop it. Rather, the fault lies squarely with the legislators. They introduced the bill (in several forms), they voted it out of committee, they brought it to the floor, and they passed it. No amount of lobbying can do that without the complicity of the lawmakers involved.

If one wants to prevent breakdowns in the republican process, then one should strive to limit the ones making the laws, not merely the ones speaking on behalf of a particular bill or policy. The lobbyist is doing nothing but expressing their free speech, even if what they are saying is irrational. The legislator (or bureaucrat or president, as lobbyists deal with many parts of government) is the one implementing such an irrational vision.

Were the authority of elected officials constitutionally constrained by the sanctity of individual rights and were the protection of those rights the sole directive of government officials, there is no injury possible for which a lobbyist may advocate. They may reach out to elected officials to produce a constitutional change to allow for their irrational policy goals, but that is a much more arduous process. There is no such thing as a government that protects against the irrational culture of its populace, but at least the irrational ideologies of a few irrational lobbyists, interest groups, and politicians would be prevented from doing harm.

In fact, the entire career of “lobbyist” would largely disappear overnight were capitalism fully implemented as a political system. Had an individual or group of individuals nothing to lose or gain through the passage of new legislation, it would be a waste of resources to hire a lobbyist to act as one’s agent in the legislature.

All individuals have been frustrated by some law or regulation enacted by the government at some point or another, but it is important to direct that frustration at its proper source. Rather than lashing out against the groups and individuals doing their best to live within our mixed economic culture of pull, radicals for capitalism should strike at the source of that culture itself – at the constitutional shortcomings of our government and at the ideas exploiting and exacerbating those shortcomings. Arguing for increased restrictions on the profession of lobbying would do little to remedy anti-capitalist policies, and would actually do much to injure the voices of groups lobbying on behalf of capitalism. Where lobbyists and their clients advocate irrational causes, those causes should be opposed clearly, but through intellectual means– not those that limit their First Amendment rights. If anyone truly wants to eliminate lobbying as a profession (and, again, in a rational political system, it likely would not be), then they should focus on taking away the regulatory powers of public officials that make lobbying necessary in the first place.

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[1]. The bill ended up dying in the House.

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