Lobbying Is Democracy in Action

Newsweek, December 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

Lobbying Is Democracy in Action


We here in Washington are anticipating a stampede of lobbyists, influence peddlers, media consultants, paid "experts" and self-styled crusaders. Who brought us this onslaught of special pleaders? Why it's Barack Obama, the man who vowed to "change" how Washington works and banish from the political arena all those "special interests" that were depicted as a form of lowlife. Well, this is one Obama promise doomed to fail.

The only way to eliminate lobbying and special interests is to eliminate government. The more powerful government becomes, the more lobbying there will be. So, paradoxically, Obama's ambitions for more expansive government will promote special pleading. You need only watch the response to the expected "economic stimulus" plan--totaling perhaps $700 billion--to verify this eternal truth. A LOBBYING FRENZY FOR FEDERAL FUNDS headlined a Washington Post story. The auto-industry bailout has inspired a similar swarming.

There's more to come. Obama envisions refashioning about a third of the economy: the health-care sector, representing about 16 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); the energy sector, nearly 10 percent of GDP; and the financial sector (banks, securities brokers, insurance companies), about 8 percent of GDP. There will be a vast mobilization of interests, from radiologists to renewable-energy producers; from mutual funds to hospitals. "The conventional wisdom," says Bara Vaida, the respected lobbying reporter for the National Journal, "is that -- this will be a bonanza for KaStreet"--the symbolic hub of Washington lobbyists.

Lobbyists have a bad rap, which is why politicians routinely vilify them. Denouncing them is an uncontested rhetorical lay-up. People want to blame their discontents on a conspiracy of sleazy influence merchants. Periodic scandals confirm the stereotypes: the Jack Abramoffs who wine and dine legislators, or the congressmen like Duke Cunningham who took bribes from government contractors and steered federal funds to them. But mainly the anti-lobbying bias is popular mythology.

Myth No. 1 is that lobbying is antidemocratic because it frustrates "the will of the people." Just the opposite is true: lobbying is an expression of democracy.

We are a collection of special interests, and one person's special interest is another's job or moral crusade. If people can't organize to influence government--to muzzle or shape its powers--then democracy is dead. The "will of the people" is rarely observable, because people disagree and have inconsistent desires. Of course, the "public good" should always triumph, but what represents the public good is usually debatable. The idea that the making of these choices should occur in a vacuum--delegated to an all-knowing political elite--is profoundly undemocratic. Lobbyists sharpen debate by providing an outlet for more constituencies and giving government more information.

A second myth is that lobbying favors the wealthy, including corporations, because only they can afford its cost. …

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