The Influence Business: Lobbyists Help Shape Public Policy, but in Many States It's Becoming Tougher for Them to Play That Role

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Lobbyists are everywhere.

The neighbor who tells a lawmaker her view of a bill, a community volunteer who testifies at a legislative committee and the local official who writes to his representative are all lobbying.

They're all trying to influence decisions by lawmakers.

But it's the paid lobbyist, representing a group with a special interest, that draws the ire of the public.

"Lobbying is truly the third house in the legislative process," says California lobbyist Gregg Cook of Government Affairs Consulting in Sacramento. "I provide information; the other side does the same thing. It's up to lawmakers to sift through the material and make an informed decision."

But Cook admits the negative reputation of lobbying bothers him. "I'm proud of what we do," he says, "but the public perception of lobbying is pathetic, and scandals validate that perception."

Love them or hate them, lobbyists are now facing stricter regulations on how they work than ever before. At least 21 states have changed their rules on lobbyists in the past several years. Some lobbyists say they can easily live with the rules, while others say they unnecessarily crimp their style. Those who proposed the rules say the new restrictions were a response to public demand.

A BAD RAP

To say that lobbying and lobbyists have gotten a bad rap is to understate the case. In 2008, a USA Today/Gallup poll asked people to rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in 21 different professions. Respondents put lobbyists at the bottom of the list, below car salesmen and telemarketers.

Even the once-powerful federal lobbyist Jack Abramoff had nothing nice to say about his line of work. After pleading guilty in 2005 to corruption charges involving members of Congress and federal officials, he told the judge at his sentencing: "I'm not the same man who happily and arrogantly engaged in a lifestyle of political and business corruption."

But Carol W. Lewis, ethicist and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, says lobbying is a normal part of the process. "If lobbying is making our opinions and preferences known to decision makers, then isn't this what citizens in a democracy are supposed to do?"

Even proponents of strict lobbying laws understand the role lobbying plays. On its website, the National Institute on Money in State Politics says that "many lobbyists do their homework and provide solid, fact-based information to busy legislators. Nevertheless, lobbyists aren't necessarily looking out for the public interest."

Jim Bricker, director of government affairs at PEMCO Financial Center in Olympia, Wash., compares the public's feeling toward lobbyists with how they feel about their local elected official. "Everyone loves their local officials. They know them and know how hard they work. They feel the same toward the lobbyist of their particular special interest. 'Our guy is good. It's the other lobbyists who abuse the system.'"

Although state and local officials understand the role of lobbyists in the legislative process, they also know the concerns of the public.

"Legislators have an ethical duty to vote their conscience and represent the public's interest," says Oregon Representative Dennis Richardson, who notes the public often believes that legislators' votes are swayed by lobbyists and campaign contributions. "This puts an enormous responsibility on us as elected officials."

It's important to listen to lobbyists on both sides of an issue, he says, because lobbyists can be a great source of information. But he cautions lawmakers about becoming too friendly. "Legislators should never confuse positive business relationships with friendships. Ask any long-term legislator who retires. Do lobbyists continue to call after they are out of office? No, the silence is deafening. …