Political Hay

How to Tell Good Lobbyists From Bad

There's more to the profession than digging for "buried infrastructure."

By 6.22.06

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"Please don't tell my mother I'm a lobbyist. She thinks I'm a piano player in a whore house." OK. OK. It is an old joke sometimes applied to lawyers (my own profession), used car salesmen, and other assorted occupations. But it was still a funny line when I first heard it from a lobbyist friend in Lansing, the seat of Michigan's state government, over a decade ago.

Unfortunately, the bite of this joke, as applied to the constitutionally protected profession of lobbying, seems to feel sharper since I moved to Washington, D.C. The obscene explosion of earmarks, i.e., pork barrel spending; the millions of dollars expended by rent-seekers on luxurious vacations for members of Congress; the Abramoff-DeLay-Ney-Cunningham-Jefferson scandals; and the revolving door of congressional staffers into lobbying firms and back out again -- all are symptoms of a federal government in its High Baroque phase.

Have you noticed how often pundits will refer to various pieces of legislation these days as the "No Lobbyist Left Behind Act"? Transportation, defense, energy, farm, and all manner of authorization and appropriations bills routinely serve as vehicles for organized plunder of the public treasury by means of earmarks, subsidies, preferential tax breaks, tariffs, or trade preferences. Even the original idea of "No Child Left Behind" has proven to be a problematic phrase disguising an ineffective, yet expanding, federal bureaucracy and the state monopoly in education that it supports.

It is now pretty much accepted that anyone who hires the right lobbyist, accesses the right legislator, and deploys the right amount of campaign contributions is entitled to whatever bit of largesse the legislative, appropriations, and regulatory processes can cough up. Let's be clear what is going on here. A select few of our fellow citizens cut a deal with a member or members of Congress to spend other people's tax dollars usually without the benefit of transparent or open debate. The spending is rarely part of any kind of systematic federal policy focused on democratically determined priorities. The expenditures or interventions are ad hoc and parochial, driven by rank economic or political self-interest.

THE BROKERS OF THESE ARRANGEMENTS are, of course, the many lobbyists who specialize, say, in earmarking the numerous appropriations bills in ways too creative to imagine. Take an example from a relatively small segment of the lobbying-for-dollars business: water infrastructure projects. Last year two lobbyists, Mark D. McIntyre and Steven Pattie, totally without shame or irony, published an article entitled, "Federal Earmarks for Buried Infrastructure: Is Your Municipality Receiving Its Fair Share of Buried Federal Treasure?" The article appeared in a reputable trade publication, Underground Infrastructure Management-UIM (March/April 2005).

These two enterprising lobbyists noted that "Securing federal support through the appropriations process is probably the single best source for your municipality's underground infrastructure challenges..."

"Here is a big opportunity for your representative to bring the treasure home," say these lobbyists. Minimum monthly retainers of at least $10,000 are common, they claim. But they cite many instances where the payoff is in the millions of dollars. "Indeed, a seasoned appropriations lobbyist can lead you to an exotic location for funding."

Really, I am not making this up.

Keep in mind that these earmarks are grants, not loans, on 55 percent of the infrastructure project and are not paid back. These dollars are often diverted from an existing federal-state program that provides water and wastewater loans at low interest rates where the principal, at least, is repaid and recycled back into the water market, effectively leveraging limited funds. It is a systematic program with guidelines and criteria established largely at the state level.

OF COURSE, LOBBYING OR EARMARKING is a lot easier than convincing those skeptical ratepayers of the necessity of paying for the upkeep of their own water systems. With the right political connections, maybe a community can get the ratepayers of other communities, maybe in another state even, to pay for their own upgrades!

Congressmen can be pretty effective lobbyists, too. Maybe the best. The June 19 Business section of the Washington Post, in a story by Charles R. Babcock, reports of a small Alexandria, Virginia defense contractor, Vibration & Sound Solutions, Ltd., which, for over a decade, has received $37 million from annual earmarks, compliments of Rep. James P. Moran, Jr. (D-VA) for a nifty "Project M" technology that seeks to utilize magnetic levitation to make submarines quieter, Navy SEALs safer in their boats, and possibly protect Marines from roadside bombs. Sounds great, huh? Unfortunately, the Pentagon did not want the technology!

Paul M. Lowell, a civilian Navy employee who oversaw this VSSL's work as chief of staff for the Office of Naval Research, said Project M "seemed to me a solution looking for a problem the Navy might have." While it originally looked like it might have merit, "...we found out quickly it didn't really solve the problems," said Lowell. Basically, it was living entirely on grants from Congress.

According to Robert D. Novak (Washington Post, June 19), the Sun Gazette newspaper in Northern Virginia reported that Rep. Moran said at a party dinner in his district on June 9, "When I become [a House Appropriations subcommittee] chairman, I'm going to earmark the [expletive] out of it." This is one lesson one might hope the Democrats did not learn from the Republicans.

Despite these rather sad stories, the truth of the matter is that the federal government is a labyrinth through which no individual or corporate citizen can navigate without the assistance of a Washington-based organization, trade association, lobbying firm, or a congressional office. The classic case of a business that tried to avoid hiring lobbyists, but lived to regret that decision, is Bill Gates's Microsoft, which has now fully "lobbied up" after going through anti-trust hell.

Many lobbyists do provide an essential service playing defense in terms of regulatory overkill and legislative adventurism. Without their watchful eyes and insiders' knowledge, individuals, businesses, and entire industries would be left to the mercy of federal agency and congressional staffers who populate a rich and diverse ecosystem of bureaus, offices, committees and subcommittees within the Beltway.

I have had my share of disagreements with business lobbyists over policy and regulatory matters, at both the state and federal levels. Yet, I always recognized that they carried out an essential function if one values the independence and vitality of the private sector and the market economy. You cannot keep expanding the reach of government at all levels and not expect red-blooded Americans to do what they need to do in order to protect their interests and shape government policy according to their best judgment as to their private interests and that of the country as a whole.

SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE one in judging the role of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., in 2006? "Conflicted" is the honest answer. When lobbyists raid the public treasury for private benefit or torque policy for special advantage, it is an abuse of the right to petition the government for just ends. It deserves all the criticisms, denunciations, and abuse that the citizenry can bring down upon them.

But when lobbyists and, in many cases, lawyers, are on the strategic defensive, it must be recognized that they are fulfilling a vital function in the checks and balances of a limited, constitutional government with a distinct bias in favor of the private sector and ordered liberty. One can disagree with the positions or viewpoints they might advocate in the political and governmental bazaar, but it is an entirely legitimate, even necessary function in a free society. You cannot take the politics out of politics.

Lobbying abuses must be challenged whether they are perpetrated by Republicans or Democrats. But the abuse must be differentiated from the appropriate use of this necessary tool.

If conservatives, including not a few Republicans, want to restrain the worst excesses of the lobbying business, they need to address the root causes of government spending and unconstrained expansionism. Something like Newt's Contract With America might do the trick. It is time to put a stake in the heart of Big Government Conservatism.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.