Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lobbying And Its Impact On Democracy

Definitions. Lobbying can be defined as the act of influencing or attempting to influence government leaders at the national, state, or local levels to create legislation or policy or to conduct an activity for the benefit of a specific industry, company, individual, or special interest group.  The National Conference of State Legislatures (www.ncsl.org) adds that “most states define a lobbyist as someone who receives any amount of compensation or reimbursement to lobby.”

The Fourth Branch Of Our Government? Lobbying have become as integral a part of our government as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. However, the three branches mentioned were created by the U.S. Constitution, but the lobbying element as it exists today could not have been foreseen by our founding fathers, so it was neither included or excluded from our Constitution.

First Amendment Protection? Pro-lobbyists will say that lobbying is allowed under the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Extracting those portions that are used to justify lobbying, we get:

Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Meaning Of The Word “People.” To some people, it is very clear that the word “people” as specified in this amendment was intended to mean the plural of person and, in this particular case, human beings who are citizens of this country. That would exclude corporate entities which are legal constructs, and who are neither human nor citizens.

Individuals could join together to pursue their legal rights as a group and not lose their identity as people. However, once a group becomes incorporated, whether they be an S corporation, a C corporation, or an LLC, that corporate entity itself is not a person. The people within it are, but the corporation itself is not.

I feel that Congress was on the right track in 1907 when it banned campaign contributions from banks and corporations Unfortunately, due to an over-zealous judge in 1886 and an over-reaching court reporter in his court, the proceedings of a case there became an irregular landmark ruling that corporations are people. (See:The Straight Dope (How can a corporation be legally considered a person?) at http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2469/how-can-a-corporation-be-legally-considered-a-person.

Lobbyists: The Fourth Branch of Government. The role of lobbyists is to influence legislation in favor of their clients. It is becoming increasingly common for lobbyists to actually write the legislation on behalf of the members of Congress, to ensure that the wording in the bills to be presented does indeed favor their clients. This tactic must be working, because the amount spent on this activity has continued to double about every nine years, as corporations and special interest groups invest more and more in the lobbying activity.

Whom Do The Lobbyists Represent? Do they represent the best interests of the American people? What do you think? .Do they represent the interests of their clients, even if those interests run counter to those of the American people? You bet! This is just one way that the power of the people is usurped for the benefit of big money interests.  To read more about how lobbying and influence peddling are shaping legislation, keep up with the Center for Responsive Politics’ blog at http://www.opensecrets.org/news/.

Lobbying Is Big Business ... Lobbyists.info states that there are 18,000 lobbyists in Washington in 1,700 firms, representing 12,000 clients. That means that there are more than 33 lobbyists per member of Congress. How can Congress get any work done with that many people constantly vying for their attention – or is that a self-answering question?

And It Must Be Effective. Furthermore, according to The Center for Responsive Politics (http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/index.php), special interests paid Washington lobbyists a record-breaking $3.51 billion in 2010.. That is an expenditure of more than $6.5 million per member of Congress. They say that money speaks. In this case, it shouts! They must be getting the results they want, or they wouldn't put out money in such huge volumes.

Follow The Money. Just what special interest groups find lobbying to be of such great value that they are willing to contribute huge sums of money to influence our government in their favor? Here is a list of the top 15 industries who have used lobbyists over the time period of 1998-2011, and the amount they have “invested” in furthering their own interests:    

Industry Total
Pharmaceuticals/Health Products $2,204,027,124
Insurance $1,577,725,579
Electric Utilities $1,487,339,178
Business Associations $1,232,513,899
Computers/Internet $1,206,517,827
Oil & Gas $1,150,840,111
Misc Manufacturing & Distributing $1,010,365,149
Education $1,002,954,368
Hospitals/Nursing Homes $947,933,537
Civil Servants/Public Officials $910,330,244

TV/Movies/Music $878,307,553
Securities & Investment $848,947,340
Health Professionals $839,339,329
Air Transport $793,385,436
Source: Center for Public Responsibility:
And here is a list of the top 20 organizations who used lobbyists during that same time period and the amount of money they expended in pursuit of their interests.

Lobbying Client
US Chamber of Commerce
American Medical Assn
General Electric
Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America
American Hospital Assn
Blue Cross/Blue Shield
National Assn of Realtors
Northrop Grumman
Exxon Mobil
Verizon Communications
Edison Electric Institute
Business Roundtable
Boeing Co
Lockheed Martin
AT&T Inc
Southern Co
General Motors
PG&E Corp
Pfizer Inc
Source: Center for Public Responsibility:(http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php)

How many of these companies would you suppose are lobbying on your behalf rather than their own special interests? (Clue: You probably won't need more than one finger, if that.)
The Revolving Door: From Capitol Hill to K Street, CBS News reported on this story at www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/05/09/.../main4085325.shtml.. While serving in government, people build up personal relationships with their fellow members. They learn how they think, what their hot buttons are, and what it might take to get their vote on a particular piece of legislation. They might even know something about them that can be used as leverage in a particularly critical situation.

Once they leave Capitol Hill, they are very valuable commodities to special interest groups. They know the people, they know the process, and they know whose arm to twist to get a particular political favor or a piece of legislation passed They become in essence a fourth branch of our government, representing the special interests of their clients, rather than their fellow citizens or the country as a whole. 

What Happens To Their Campaign Chests? Not only do these movers and shakers draw very high salaries for their efforts, but the also bring along any unspent money from their campaign chests to use on the job. They aren't supposed to spend it on personal needs, But they do feel free to use it to influence their former fellow legislators. 

According to CBS, Trent Lott went from the Senate into lobbying. He took along $1.3 million in unspent campaign funds. Lott has dipped into his campaign chest to donate money to former colleagues who could influence a deal with Northrup Grumman, who is lobbying to keep a $35 billion air force contract for plane re-fuelers. This included Senators Saxby Chambliss and Roger Wicker, who sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's also contributed to the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell. 

But Is It Legal? Government watchdog Sheila Krumholz says it's perfectly legal … but shouldn't be. “Not only do they have incredible access to their former colleagues,” she adds, “but they can give out money to those colleagues to keep the doors open," 

Added Benefits. And they don't have to be concerned about re-election, campaigning, or being held accountable by their constituents. According to the Congressional Quarterly, “195 members have crossed over to lobbying since 2005.” The Center For Responsive Politics has revealed that a staggering 79% of the members of Congress, who have left office since 1998, have found work as lobbyists. 

From K Street to Capitol Hill. A revolving door works in both directions. In this case, not only do many members of Congress move into lobbying positions to use their influence to pass legislation favorable to their clients, but some lobbyists are often elected or invited into the federal government. 
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that huge numbers of former lobbyists are now working as staff to many of our elected Congress members. The Center found that 128 former lobbyists now work in key staff positions in this Congress. These lobbyists can be found in the offices of Republicans and Democrats, senior and junior congressional members and in the staff offices of many powerful congressional committees. Some of these are now working for the same Congress members or committees that they once used to lobby. This could be a real boon for lobbying firms. Why should they have to pay for lobbyists to influence lawmakers when they can have them on the legislators' staff, paid for by the government?

A Lobbying “Dirty Trick?” Federal laws prohibit individual lobbyists from paying for Congress members' lavish trips. However, non-profit firms can do this. So, what would any good, enterprising lobbyist do? Of course, he or she would get other lobbyists to join in establishing a tax-exempt, non-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization One such organization is called America's Trust. Here is how they describe themselves:

“America's Trust is a non-profit, non-partisan research and public policy organization that aims to bridge partisan and other divisions in order to facilitate the process of responsibly addressing the challenges facing the United States. To accomplish this long-term goal, America’s Trust seeks to bring experts, leaders and policy makers together across party lines to encourage honest dialogue on important issues facing America, and to provide them and the public with new ideas and research to stimulate innovative problem-solving.”

This description appears to be a thinly-veiled disguise for a lobbying organization to me. USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-06-21-lobbyists-cover_x.htm) reported that this organization has a 12-person board of directors, and that every one of them is a lobbyist. (Their web site provides no names of any people involved in the organization other than its executive director.)  USA Today says that there are many such organizations in existence.
Law Abiding Or Law Evading? Members of Congress are reported to have taken thousands of privately-financed trips, more than half of which were funded by tax-exempt groups such as America's Trust. The reason for using this masquerade is that non-profit groups don't have to disclose their members' names or those of their donors. So, lobbyists who form such groups, can evade laws designed to limit their influence. In addition, politicians who are otherwise restricted to gifts of $50 or less from lobbying firms can go on these types on luxury trips with posh hotels and gourmet food – all funded by special interest groups. But, while they are on the plane, they are available for “educational discussion” about pending legislation and policy matters.

A Huge Cadre Of Highly-Skilled “Hired Guns."   There may be some legitimate reasons to permit special interest lobbying, but the concept as it is presently practiced is that of a huge cadre of highly-skilled “hired guns”who exert undue influence on public policy and legislation in support of their clients' interests, even when that is contrary to the will of the American people and detrimental to our country. They exert an inordinate amount of control over our government, and it is done largely outside the public view.
Uequal Access = Unfair Representation  Lobbyists enjoy special access to elected officials, which ordinary citizens do not have. In brief, it is an unfair playing field from the start.that gives lobbyists a huge, insurmountable inside edge. This is be achieved through scheduled meetings, during tours, on airplane flights, over a meal, at social or sporting events, or dozens of other convenient times. These, however, are opportunities for lobbyists that ordinary citizens do not have. It is unequal and therefore unfair access that is prejudicial to the best interests of the people


Lobbying is detrimental to our system of government. We are supposed to have a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Nowhere in that statement is there any mention of government influenced by lobbyists or special interest groups. Nor is there any mention of government for such interests.. Lobbying detracts our legislators from the interests of the American people and subverts our elected representatives with information that is biased in favor of their clients. There is no “fair and balanced” input from the other side. We have seen in the national media how information can be spun, distorted, manipulated, and abused. You can imagine how much more this can be done in private discussions between lobbyists and legislators. When lobbyists are able to promote views based upon invalid or misleading information provided to our legislators, both the lobbyist and the representative are abusing our political system.

Lobbyists have too much power. Private citizens have virtually no clout with their government officials when they are up against powerful and well-funded lobbyists. The average person very rarely has the opportunity to get the ear of his or her elected representative – even for a few seconds. Individual letters and e-mails have little or no effect. They are generally seen only by the legislators' aides and.frequently are only tallied relative to their position on a matter. Even though polls are taken frequently, it seems as though legislators pay attention only to those which confirm their views, those of their party, or those of the lobbyists. The only time they seem to be interested in the views of those who elected them is when they are up for re-election.
Citizens have too little power.  Yes, citizens can form their own special interest groups, and some already exist in certain general areas. However, without the enormous funding that lobbyists bring to the table, the voice of private citizens on individual issues is totally drowned out by the power and clout of the lobbyists. It is little wonder that so many Americans are not active in their government, but are at best just passive observers, when they are so powerless against strong special interests and their voice cannot be heard in Washington.
Conclusion I would like to conclude this particular discussion with the words of Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, when she addressed the House Ethics Committee several years ago. Her complete address to the Committee can be found at http://www.louise.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=432&Itemid=106

"The ethical crisis confronting us in this House is truly corrosive. It has become the subtext for every issue we face in Washington - and Americans are suffering as a result."

"The democratic process within the halls of Congress has been forgotten, replaced by the desire to see partisan legislation pass at all costs. Corrupted bills benefiting the few rather than the many have been the result."

"We have also heard a great deal of late about the role of lobbyists in Washington. Defenders of this industry claim that because of the First Amendment, the practice is, and always will be, constitutionally protected. But what did our Founders mean when they enshrined 'the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances?'"

"They certainly never intended to condone a system in which private lobbying firms, wielding vast sums of money, spend their days shaping our nation's legislation - and do so to a degree the average citizen can't even dream of. And more importantly, our Founders never would have imagined that this Congress would prove so eager to cater to these special interests. Lobbyists, after all, can only knock on the door. Members are the ones who have to open it."

"In the weeks and months ahead, we need to halt this body's slide away from its most fundamental principals."

"We need to drain the swamp."

Footnote. Despite Ms. Slaughter's comments above, I have found a Politico web site (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0910/42796.html) which describes 400 fundraisers recently within a 14 day period. Included was the following small item:
“For $500 to $5,000, a lobbyist can enjoy cocktails at Democratic House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter's Capitol Hill home.”
Like most politicians, Ms. Slaughter apparently doesn't practice what she preaches, and only strengthens the case against lobbyists and our representatives who open their door to them.

Coming Up: 
                        Lobbyists Teach One Day and Get Huge Pension

Why Is Our Congress So Dysfunctional?

How Congress Has Occupied Wall Street.

Big Problems with Our Two-Party System

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