Magazine article Insight on the News

Lobbyists Only One Side of Washington Influence Coin

Magazine article Insight on the News

Lobbyists Only One Side of Washington Influence Coin

Article excerpt

Here's a sure bet to make on the Clinton years. Four years from now - despite President Clinton's professed distaste for lobbyists and promulgation of new ethics rules for his staff - Washington will enjoy far more lobbying than it already does.

This will prove true even if it turns out that the president was sincere in his campaign pledge to add "more restrictions on lobbyists" and that the appointment to his Cabinet of superlobbyists like Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was merely an aberration.

Railing against lobbyists is good politics. Making laws, as the old saying has it, is like making sausages - you don't want to know the details of how it's done. And lobbyists are the sausage makers of democracy.

Widespread distaste for the business of swaying government decisions for pay is understandable. But the business itself is not always fully understood. And ritual denunciations of Washington lobbyists, like those of candidate Clinton, don't help because they routinely leave out the most interesting half of the problem, the half that politicians are least inclined to solve. That's the growth - in size, ambition and intrusiveness - of the federal government.

While it's true that there always have been lobbyists in Washington, and probably always will be a few, it's also true that their number has exploded in recent years. Jeffrey Birnbaum, a Wall Street Journal reporter, estimates in his new book, The Lobbyists, that there are now 80,000 lobbyists in Washington, double what there were a decade ago.

The standard explanations - Republican cupidity, lax ethics laws, campaigns that run on private money - can't begin to account for this rapid growth. Nor will the standard solutions - a Democrat in the White House, tighter ethics laws, government financing of campaigns - slow the growth.

What these explanations and solutions leave out is the salient fact that lobbying has grown in tandem with the modern regulatory state, in which thousands of clerks - from congressional staffers to bureaucrats at the regulatory agencies - have the power at the stroke of a pen to reward or punish citizens and businesses to the tune of millions or even billions of dollars. With that kind of money at stake on a daily basis, it's laughable to think that restrictions on the future employment of a few dozen high-ranking executive branch officials will throw a wrench into the lobbying machine.

Only one thing can be reliably counted on to reduce lobbying in the long term, a federal government that's less worth lobbying - smaller, simpler and not as ambitious. To give just one example: A flat tax would eliminate the jobs of countless lobbyists whose business is to seek favors in the tax code. …

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