I am a Washington lobbyist.
Mine is one of the most reviled professions in America. According to a Gallup poll, people rate the honesty and ethics of lobbyists lower than any occupation measured — and that includes car salespeople and telemarketers.
I have to be registered with the government and report any changes in my work quarterly, as if I’m on criminal parole. When I tried to increase my liability insurance coverage a few years back, I was turned down because I had a “risky” profession. The Obama administration barred me from accepting political appointments.
This sweeping contempt for lobbyists is misguided. Our job is to transmit the views of our constituents, employers or clients to public officials, which often means reframing an idea into the language of government policy.
The right to petition the U.S. government is so essential to democracy that it is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The appropriateness of lobbyists’ role was reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, in an opinion that noted that many lobbyists are “entirely honest and respectable representatives of business, professional, and philanthropic organizations … many of whom serve a useful and perfectly legitimate purpose.”
Lobbyists might be best known — or perhaps infamous — for large corporate clients. However, we also work for nonprofits, small businesses, trade associations, unions, public-policy advocacy groups of all types, as well as state and local governments.
I, for instance, work for the Dayton Development Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes new businesses and job creation in 14 Ohio counties. I work with community leaders to craft requests to legislators from the region. If I am successful, they will take up my position and try to persuade their colleagues in Congress to do the same. I also answer questions from our representatives on how legislation might affect economic development here in Ohio.
The gulf between the Beltway and the world beyond is both cultural and geographic, and lobbyists are essential to bridging that gap. Like lawyers, we advocate for people or organizations that can’t navigate the intricacies of a government system on their own. Also like attorneys, some lobbyists might argue different sides at different times depending on the client, so our whole profession is viewed with suspicion.
Yes, there’s an element of unfairness. In both lobbying and law, access isn’t equal. Those who can afford to pay for better representation often — though not always — receive better results. But also like the legal system, success often hinges more on the strength of the case than the representation.
Still, the deep disdain for lobbyists, I believe, springs from a mistaken belief that influencing the government corrupts the democratic process. To the contrary, the whole idea of democracy is that the people do influence the government. Lobbyists are part of what makes government respond to the needs of citizens.
But instead of recognizing that fact, the public makes lobbyists the scapegoat for whatever is wrong with Washington. Sure, there are dishonest lobbyists, and because scandals in our profession often involve public funds and famous lawmakers, they make headlines. Yet there is probably no profession more closely tracked by the public; details of our lobbying activities, funding, campaign contributions and related charitable donations are posted on the web for anyone to peruse.
President Obama’s policy to bar nearly all lobbyists from appointments was, in the end, unhelpful because it took out of the running some of the most knowledgeable and experienced candidates. President-elect Donald Trump booted lobbyists off his transition team when it seemed he wasn’t living up to his “drain the swamp” slogan. Then he announced an expansion of part of Obama’s anti-lobbyist policy, preventing political appointees from becoming lobbyists for five years after they leave the government.
Such rules imply lobbyists have far more power than we do and that our intent is to corrupt the government. We’re not supervillains. If we have any effect on government policy, it’s only because public officials are swayed by our arguments. The consequence of blaming lobbyists for Washington’s shortfalls is that it limits people with expertise from helping solve government problems — and it lets elected leaders off the hook when they don’t.
Michael Gessel is a lobbyist for the Dayton Development Coalition. He spent 24 years working on Capitol Hill for both Republicans and Democrats. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.