Will Obama Uphold the Right to Petition?

Armstrong Williams

6/24/2008 4:36:03 PM - Armstrong Williams

It is hard not to appreciate the rhetorical flourish contained in Senator Obama’s recent critique of the McCain campaign’s ties to lobbying interests, “that lobbyists aren't just part of the system in Washington, they're part of the problem." It was a kitschy, sound-bite ready statement that, while cleverly worded, may be a bit simplistic. The fact of the matter is that lobbying is rooted in the right to petition contained in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and goes back to the Bill of Rights in England and the Magna Carta. The right to petition the government is one of the cornerstones of Democracy, and abridging that right by forcing petitioners to resign from political campaigns just doesn’t sit well with me.

While I am willing to concede that at times special interest lobbyists have held inordinate influence over the political process in Washington, lobbyists actually play an essential role in the political process. By addressing government directly, lobbyists pray for relief in a manner that often cannot be addressed by legislation or judicial intervention. At various times in the history of our country, most notably during the anti-slavery debates of the mid-nineteenth century, petitioning Congress proved to be an invaluable strategy for addressing the ills of slavery – a practice that was legally sanctioned at the time.

Certainly the evolving complexity of government regulations has placed our country in the position that the average citizen (whether human or corporate) often has no idea who to turn to in order to address his or her grievances. Government has in some cases become such a labyrinth that even the representatives themselves are scarcely able to navigate the corridors of power. Thus, professional lobbyists play an important role in both informing the process, providing analysis for complex issues, and representing issues in a more immediate and direct sense than elections alone.

In fact, if he were to be elected, Obama would need information generated by lobbyists and think tanks in order to inform policy choices. That’s because even the most capable of administrations is hardly equipped to digest the deluge of policy papers, draft legislation, and judicial precedent that flood the nation’s capital on a daily basis. He will have to start somewhere, and that somewhere will be where the people have directed their own focus in the form of issue-based, grass roots lobbying.

An upcoming article by Nicholas W. Allard, a lawyer at the Washington lobbying firm Patton Boggs makes the point that increased regulation of lobbying activities and more restrictive ethics laws have actually made lobbying a more, not less, lucrative profession. Perhaps unintentionally, many of the new rules governing lobbying further remove the average citizen from accessing the ear of government. Furthermore, rather than remove money from politics, the rules ensure that more money will be spent on political fundraising and other activities.

Long gone are the days when fat cats waited in the lobby of Washington hotels for the chance to offer the President or some member of Congress a cigar and scotch. Now, lobbying is a highly specialized profession, closely related to law and medicine. Lobbyists who chose to support political candidates in their free time should not be punished just because of their professional affiliations. Certainly those affiliations deserve to be disclosed when appropriate, but they are far from disqualifying.

The intricate, sometimes essential relationship between politicians and lobbyists makes one wonder whether Senator Obama truly has a plan for reforming lobbying practices in Washington or whether he is merely using the issue to score political points against his likely rival for the office of President. To be fair, almost all of the top strategists on the staff of the major candidates either currently, or in the past, have advocated for some sort of special interests – whether as lobbyists, elected officials, attorneys, or otherwise. Furthermore, given the nature of the profession, lobbyists are well suited to run campaigns because of their familiarity with the issues and their knowledge of the political process.

Finally, let us not forget that the Constitution guarantees American citizens the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. In some sense this is a symbolic right, in that it does not confer a corresponding responsibility on behalf of the government to address the petition, grant a hearing, or even acknowledge the grievance in any formal way. There are of course other mechanisms (i.e. voting, the courts, etc.) for achieving these ends.