Lobbying Is an Honorable Profession: The Right to Petition and the Competition to Be Right

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Lobbying is an honorable profession. In America and perhaps around the world, that simple statement is more likely to be a sarcastic punch line to a bad joke than a self-evident proposition. Low public esteem for lobbyists is hardly a modern phenomenon. (1) The reasons why lobbyists have been reviled throughout history are legion, including the simple, undeniable fact that in some notorious cases lobbyists got their bad reputations the old fashioned way: they earned it. (2) However, more remarkable than the persistent image in the public consciousness of corrupt influence peddlers, is that today, while trust of professional lobbyists is particularly low, the number of lobbyists and the level of lobbying activity continues to rise. Highly touted new lobbying laws and rules have not dampened the demand and need for lobbying services. Instead, greater regulation has actually coincided with a sharp increase in professional lobbying, alongside an increase in related work by professionals with government-relations expertise representing clients facing oversight and public investigations. Indeed, an unintended consequence of new lobbying rules, enhanced enforcement, and stricter penalties is that what was once a cottage industry of government ethics and lobbying compliance training and counseling is suddenly a booming practice area for Washington law firms. (3) Since the new rules were issued, proliferating seminars and advice columns by practitioners, continuing legal education courses, and compliance training sessions are playing to packed audiences of lobbyists. (4) Observers who, depending on your perspective, are either insightful or unfairly cynical (or both) say these lobbyists are trying to learn how to evade the law. (5) In reality, the widespread effort to learn about the new ethics rules, while inconsistent with popular myths about lobbying, is evidence supporting the themes advanced here: lobbyists work hard at their challenging profession. Today, lobbying is more necessary, widespread, and complicated than ever before. It is also more open, more professional, subject to more rules, and practiced with a greater degree of legal compliance.

The public is extremely suspicious of lobbyists: approximately eighty percent of Americans believe that lobbyists exercise undue influence on public policy. (6) Presidential candidates decry the role of lobbyists, and some will not accept their campaign contributions. (7) Today, like the 1970s Watergate era, the early 1990s prior to Republicans' wresting control of Congress from Democrats, and other watershed points in political history, (8) headlines about a spate of scandals involving members of Congress, (9) Executive Branch officials, (10) legislative staff, (11) and notorious lobbyists (12) capture national attention. The cacophony of bad news drowns out the fact that the crooked lobbyists are deviant outliers who hardly represent the norm. Each of these scandals is, in a sense, an extreme example which should remind us that the public policy process is usually above board and honest. In Washington, D.C. alone there are approximately 85,000 attorneys, a large number of whom engage, to varying degrees, in public policy. At this writing, there were 35,844 registered lobbyists. (13) Exceedingly few of these men and women would even contemplate breaking an ethical rule or tolerate anyone who does. (14) The public policy work of these professionals rarely is noted by the press, and when it is, it is not because they had an ethical lapse. Those headlined for breaking the rules were caught and punished, and they did not prevail in bending the law and policy their way. (15) The bad guys not only violated public trust, but shortchanged those clients who were naive enough to try to buy outcomes, because they did not, and in fact could not, deliver. The scandals we all read about were essentially political Ponzi schemes that collapsed, inevitably, under their own weight. …