The Office of Government Ethics, at the behest of the Obama administration, recently proposed a new rule to eliminate most forms of lobbyist access to executive officials in the name of ethics and government transparency.
While these rules carry positive overtones that tend to play well with President Barack Obama’s more liberal base, the reality is that these proposed reforms, if enacted, would cause far more harm than good by preventing information from making its way into the hands of policymakers.
Lobbying is a dirty word in many circles. When the “L” word comes up in conversation, many envision Jack Abramoff-style resort-junkets and property giveaways. The criticism most often levied against the role of lobbying in government is that it is “legal bribery” of government officials in an effort to guarantee favorable outcomes. Many assume that a lobbyist is out to corrupt the law in favor of their client and to secure more loot for themselves and their employers.
While this image might make for good television or hysterical reporting; the truth is that at face value, it is patently absurd. Certainly, there is no denying that the lurid side of lobbying exists; it is far and away the exception and not the norm. Continued reforms in light of scandals have helped to force transparency and greater accountability into government while still maintaining the role of the lobbyist. It is worth noting that there is no evidence of any problems or scandals that this administration is attempting to solve.
Moreover, there is a very important distinction between the lobbying of elected officials and the lobbying of appointed officials in the executive branch. This proposed rules affects the latter, not the former. Therefore, the primary concern of dollars buying votes is already moot since executive branch officials do not have the election funding concerns of congressmen and women.
The proposed rule would effectively ban any social contact between registered lobbyists and executive branch officials, even if they worked on separate issues. This prohibition on what are commonly called “widely attended events” would ban executive officials from attending gatherings of interested parties such as trade association conferences or meetings if they carry any tinge of lobbyist involvement (which they all do, being that all trade associations and organizations in Washington have lobbyists on staff). Allowing this rule to become reality would unnecessarily hamper the ability of all individuals to effectively communicate their concerns to those in power.
The practice of lobbying has its roots deep in our history and is protected by the First Amendment’s “right to petition” clause. Modern lobbyists are hired as professional communicators and advocates to represent an individual or group of individuals in order to provide information to policy makers in order to ensure that the concerns of interested and affected parties are heard.
This responsibility of communicating information between citizens and policymakers is an invaluable and necessary element of our representative democracy. Today’s politicians and rule-makers must deal with an unbelievable diversity of subject matter. Even the most educated and dedicated among them simply do not have the staff or time to remain informed on all matters relevant to their constituents and their professional obligations. Lobbyists fill that need for information by providing targeted and specific information to interested officials.
Despite popular Tea Party rhetoric, appointment-level officials in the Obama administration are not idiots. When they talk to a lobbyist, they understand that the information they receive is coming from a particular point of view with a vested interest.
The way to temper the effects of lobbyists is not by attempting to cut them out of the process. Instead, the response should be of providing greater opportunities for interaction between lobbyists and policymakers that would expose policymakers to a more diverse array of opinions while simultaneously keeping them accountable through mandated disclosure and transparency rules. Outright bans on this provision of information will only lead to an underground culture of influence-peddling that will revert many of the positive reforms undertaken in recent years.
In a famous First Amendment case, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that the American belief in the freedom of speech is that “the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.” The Obama administration would do well to take Justice Brandeis’ advice and rethink this proposed ban. It would do little to address any problems of corruption but it would severely undercut the ability of executive branch officials to stay informed on how their policies affect members of the American public.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons