I am writing this week’s article after leaving my criminology class where we watched a “Frontline” expose on gun violence and the NRA. It was a very dramatic and touching documentary that clearly compels the viewer to think about his or her stance on gun rights. While the research and investigation centered on the history of the NRA as well as the history of gun control in Washington, there was the fringe issue of lobbying and special-interest groups and their power in Washington. So that is what I want to address this week; I want to address the issue of lobbying.
The words “lobbying” carries with it a deeply negative connotation which is both deserved and unhelpful. There has been a long history of corruption in both American and world history, largely stemming from government favoring one group over another. People rub elbows with representatives, trade a few laughs, give each other a wink and a nudge and in the end someone ends up with a new government contract. We have a term for those people now which we previously didn’t: a lobbyist. Basically, a lobbyist’s job is to persuade a congressman or woman to see their side of things; “their side” being whatever interest group they represent, be it the NRA or the National Weather Service. But lobbying can be done, and is done, by anybody. You and I can do it by writing letters to Rod Blum’s office, or by dropping a phone call, telling him our stance on an issue being debated in the house. There is no difference between what I can do and what a lobbyist does.
In its pure form, lobbying is not a bad thing. Here in Dubuque there is what’s called the Greater Dubuque Economic Development Center, and their job is to promote the economic development of Dubuque by drawing in businesses, as well as government funds for projects. You want to know how they do that? By lobbying Congress: that is their job. They write out grant requests, hold meetings with state and federal agency officials, and develop a plan with the municipality in order to better help the city grow. Ever been to the riverwalk? More than likely, the funds used to develop that area of town were lobbied for. The Millwork district? Lobbying. People love, love, love to decry the misuse of federal funds without actually thinking about how they themselves have benefited from some of the same funding.
Which brings me to my next point: Rod Blum recently has introduced legislation that bans former congressmen and women from lobbying. While the bill itself is agreeable, Rep. Blum is clearly against the very practice of lobbying as he states on his website. Banning the act of lobbying is ignorant and bad policy. As a U.S. House representative, Rod Blum needs to be versed in a wide array of topics in order to vote in an educated manner — something I hope he does. But there are simply too many items on the docket and too little time for him or any other Representative to have a complete education on the issue.
Here is where lobbyists are extremely helpful. Say that Blum has to give a vote on coal-mining regulation or fracking, or other matters in which he may be uneducated in. Lobbyists representing a pro-coal group such as America’s Power would come to a committee hearing session (something you or I can attend) and voice their opinion one way or another, citing numbers and statistics that may persuade Rep. Blum. Not to be outdone, a pro-environment group such as the Natural Resource Defense Council would show up at the same meeting, cite some of their own statistics, and try to persuade Rep. Blum as best they can. And those are only two groups and two arguments in what is a multifaceted debate, so there could be many more groups that Blum would hear from. As a result of lobbying, he now has the information necessary to make an informed decision on the matter.
But these are not the reasons that people hate lobbyists; they hate them because of their money. As much as I may say that lobbyists inform politicians for smarter policies, and as much as I say that these lobbied funds may benefit the public, it is still an indisputable fact that the money coming from special interests holds sway over a congressperson’s vote. Congressmen and women are in the business to be re-elected, and they seek money in order to be re-elected. Special-interest groups have that money and give that money to the politicians in the hope that a break will come their way.
This is a legitimate concern — but a concern separate from that of lobbying. While the two seem tied together and inextricable from one another, they are not. Lobbying does not necessarily have to deal with financing a campaign, but it currently does because giving money is the easiest way to persuade a politician. So instead of targeting lobbyists, the debate needs to shift towards campaign finance reform. Super PACs should not be allowed to exist, nor should people like Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and even George Soros be able to command so much power over our representatives. Because that is what they are supposed to be, representatives. Congress is supposed to represent we the people, govern for we the people, and advocate for we the people — something that lobbyists can help Congress do.