The term lobbyist has been perverted for long enough by special interests. It is time to reclaim it as a voice for the people.
“I was thinking, maybe we could take the Congressman to a Steelers game. You know, have more time to push our…”
The strategist in front of me stopped short, probably because he noticed I was glaring at him. “No, you will not pull an ‘Abramoff’ on this one.”
If anyone had told me that I would end up interviewing Jack Abramoff when I was sitting in that conference room over ten years ago, I would have laughed at them. When I worked for the lobbying arms of various groups over the years, I had a hard and fast rule. “If you can’t get the votes you want on the floor, the problem is that you’re failing at selling your message. The solution is to fix your sales technique, not buy the votes.” It might seem idealistic, but the reality was that I didn’t (still don’t) believe in pushing for more laws unless there was a very good reason for having them. In my mind, lobbying is the selling of ideas, and if we could keep the cash out of the equation, only the good ideas would sell.
Unfortunately, the reality of lobbying involves dark money, organizations that have near zero transparency pulling strings on the Hill, and a revolving door for workers between government and K Street. While the public is blissfully unaware of many of the dirty dealings going on, they are at least cognizant of the fact that they shouldn’t view most lobbyists as trustworthy.
According to a Gallup Poll on people’s views of how trustworthy and ethical professions are, “lobbyist” came in as the least trustworthy. Personally, that means I took a leap from the bottom, to around the mid-line by becoming a journalist, which is still considered a less-than-trustworthy profession in itself. Members of Congress, the targets of lobbyists, are viewed as only slightly more trustworthy.
While there is some debate about the origin of the term lobbyist, I’m going to defer to Oxford, so to speak. An editor of the Oxford English Dictionary believes that the term originated in the 1640s, and referred to open rooms where constituents could speak with their representatives. Arguably, that’s what the term should still mean now, but unfortunately, there are very few people in the lobbying profession who actually believe that. It has gotten to the point where people who actually are lobbyists refuse to call themselves by that term. This is not a matter of political correctness changing our language.
It is time to seriously consider reclaiming the term lobbyist, through reform. Organizations like Issue One are on the right track, and it can only be hoped that more organizations start promoting the various facets we need to return the term to what it was arguably meant to be. Lobbyists should be opening lines of communication between government and the people, and should be giving voice to issues the people truly want addressed. They should not be filling campaign war chests in order to gain votes for laws that the general public often does not want in the first place. Most importantly, it should not be a job that anyone denies doing, or that the public places at the bottom of the list when considering ethical behavior. The guiding philosophy for the profession really does need to be all about selling ideas, not winning at all costs.