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In Defense of Lobbying

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.


I have a confession to make. I used to be a registered lobbyist. 


No, I wasn’t one of those high-falutin, high-paid, high-powered influence peddlers you hear about on TV. I was a lobbyist for a non-profit. I was Federal Affairs Manager at Americans for Tax Reform and lobbied for limited government. 


I always adhered to my principles and can say proudly I never advocated for anything with which I disagreed. Advocating for smaller government, for ending subsidies and for constitutional government is not the path to quick riches, but I could sleep well at night.


There is money to made in lobbying – a lot of it. But most of those who strike it rich work for the big “for-hire” firms and are willing to do whatever their clients want. My only “client” was ATR, and all ATR wanted from me was to advocate for principles we shared. 


Not all lobbyists are crooks. Not even all lobbyists for big-time “for hire” firms are crooks. But all lobbyists are painted with the same brush in the media, by politicians and especially among the progressive left. They’re evil people who buy off politicians with campaign donations and cut backroom deals to get government money.


Although that’s undoubtedly true for some (Rep. Duke Cunningham’s conviction and Rep. William Jefferson’s freezer contents can attest to that), it is far from the norm.


Still, “lobbyists” has become the catch-all bogeyman for all corruption in government. The word is thrown around as a pejorative to paint one’s political opponents as evil or corrupt. But what does it really mean?


Frankly, a lobbyist is someone who seeks to influence government to do something with which you disagree. If you agree, they’re not lobbyists; they’re activists. It’s that simple. It’s an argument – a matter of semantics – designed solely to confuse a public too busy to pay close enough attention.


I had to register as a lobbyist because I advocated for or against certain matters before Congress. I worked for the XM-Sirius merger and against so-called net neutrality regulations. I never took anyone to lunch or donated to any campaigns. I mainly wrote letters to Members of Congress in support or opposition to upcoming votes. The only smoke-filled rooms I saw were bars filled with friends (back when people were still free to smoke inside).


There are a surprising number of registered lobbyists like me. 


The problem with lobbying is not the act of seeking redress of grievances from government. That’s a worthy and worthwhile pursuit – even for those who seek goals I don’t share. The problem is those who can afford to lobby use that power to create barriers to entry that keep competitors out, that assure certain favored outcomes and that limit the flow of ideas and products. Reduce the size and reach of government, and there would be less to lobby for, more competition and, in the end, more freedom and choice. 


The “Occupy Wall Street” mob chants regularly about how banks have lobbyists, but the average American doesn’t. In a sense that true.


But banks pay lobbyists for the same reason all companies do - they have no choice. The federal government now meddles in so many aspects of business and life that to ignore it would be irresponsible. When a disinterested entity attempts to mandate you do business a certain way, without regard for the feasibility of those mandates or the impact they will have on your ability to make a profit, you have to stand up. 


Moreover, most of the time, the government initiatives lobbyists are trying to stop were instigated by other lobbyists. 


The government doesn’t just control much of the business world – as well as our lives and livelihoods – it doles out hundreds of billions of dollars to causes, companies, organizations and who knows what else (they don’t even know where it all goes). With so much free money floating around, is it any wonder lobbyists, activists and “special interests” line up like heroin addicts at the methadone clinic every time a bill comes up for a vote in Congress?


Lobbying is perfectly legal and enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The lobbying “monster” was created because of Congress’ enormous capacity to ignore the rest of that document. 


Sadly, lobbying has evolved from an attempt to stop government from making harmful decisions to a weapon used by activists against whatever they oppose and by companies competing against each other. Both uses serve to erect barriers to entry for other would-be competitors. Large corporations don’t compete with start-ups; they compete with other large corporations that buy smaller upstarts to become bigger.


The end result of the regulations, taxes and other barriers government sets up to control industries make it nearly impossible for new competitors to emerge. 


You always hear about “Big Oil.” What about Small Oil? Smaller oil companies are out there, but it’s hard for them to break through among the big boys because of the investment that would be required to meet, alas, government environmental regulations. Who do you think lobbies for those regulations?


This holds true for other industries as well. In fact, aside from technology, where a good idea or product still can be created in a garage or basement and grow into Microsoft or Apple, there aren’t many industries left where a small business can grow to become an industry leader. Ask any small banker. Or small manufacturer. The deck is stacked.


Lobbying has evolved from a limited redress of grievances to a necessity and a weapon. Companies and organizations now use it both to defend against new competition and to produce revenue. If lobbying wasn’t profitable, rest assured corporations would not be paying handsomely for it. 


The Founding Fathers could not have imagined the monster they created with those few simple words in the First Amendment. They created a government designed to be so limited that handouts and special favors on the current scale would be unfathomable. 


It is impossible to slay the beast unlimited government spawned without taking on the creator of that beast. So when you hear politicians talk about tackling lobbyists or “special interests” keep in mind they’re only talking about implementing their agenda through different means. It is the biggest threat to our Republic and the ultimate grievance in need of redress.

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