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Would more lobbying improve America?

The problem isn't too many lobbyists, an expert says: It's that they don't lobby hard enough. By KEVIN HARTNETT Lobbyists get a lot of bad press for pushing the causes of corporations and other special interests on Capitol Hill, trying to game the political process behind closed doors. But could it be the real problem is that they actually don’t push those interests enough? It’s a strange-sounding complaint, but political scientist Thomas Holyoke of Fresno State University has been studying the internal dynamics of lobbying for years and has come to believe that the US would be better off if lobbyists did more effective work for their clients. The problem, he writes in a new book, isn’t that corporations don’t get enough representation: It’s that lobbyists are slippery, and don’t work for their clients as much as they claim. Instead, they tell their clients what they want to hear, while chiefly acting to stay tight with their contacts in Congress. "It becomes more important to lobbyists to maintain these relationships than to accurately represent the wishes and concerns of people they’re supposed to be representing,” he says. In a country worried about corporations, lobbyists, and Congress conspiring against American taxpayers, this sounds like a surprising complaint. But good and even forceful lobbying serves an important role: it’s a direct channel for information and expertise to reach government, and one of the best ways we have of keeping Washington responsive to America. Holyoke and other scholars see lobbying as enshrined by the Founders in the First Amendment's “petition clause.” Holyoke points out that the energy industry and Google aren’t the only ones who hire lobbyists. Small cities and towns hire lobbyists. Little nonprofits hire lobbyists. Any citizen with a case to plead might hire a lobbyist. But when these less-than-fully sophisticated players step off the bus on K Street, there are untold ways they can get fleeced, and the system breaks down. In this way, lobbying is like any other industry—the less sophisticated the consumers, the more vulnerable they are and the more regulatory protection they might need. Holyoke’s new book on the topic, “The Ethical Lobbyist,” grew out of interviews he conducted for a previous project on lobbying. He noticed lobbyists would often talk about pushing compromises or massaging issues in ways that seemed to run against their clients’ interests. These are examples of a broader dynamic, officially known as the “principal-agent” problem, which crops up whenever the person you hire knows more about what’s going on than you do. “There’s an awful lot of slippage between what clients want and what their lobbyists do,” says David Lowery, a political scientist at Penn State who has done research attempting to quantify just how much slippage occurs. he issue and say, I’m trying real hard for you, we’re looking for an opening on this thing, we can do whatever BS we want to,” he says. "I know a lobbyist who was holding onto a client in the Pacific Northwest. [The client] said there are no more earmarks so we won’t need a lobbyist, and we're going to terminate [the] contract,” Marlowe says. “Sure enough on the next plane out there, the lobbyist is telling [the client] that [earmarks] are coming back. The fact is, we can’t tell any of our clients they're coming back." Marlowe, president of Warwick Group Consultants, says another favorite trick is the dog-and-pony show. A client comes in from out of town and his lobbyist arranges flashy meetings with Congress members and their staffs. Everyone in the room knows the meeting’s not actually going to move legislation. Except maybe the person paying for it. “It doesn’t have to be said or winked at. There are folks on the staff who know that they’re helping you out by setting up a meeting with them or the boss,” Marlowe says. Holyoke argues that when lobbyists mislead their clients, it has real implications for the quality of our government. Lobbyists, despite their bad name, perform an important role of presenting citizen priorities to elected officials. When they don’t carry those desires faithfully, legislation ends up being influenced by an even narrower and less democratic set of concerns. So what to do? In “The Ethical Lobbyist,” Holyoke proposes a change that would require lobbyists to file one-page position papers online spelling out exactly what they’re advocating for. Clients and their affiliates—members of the organizations that hired the lobbyists—would be able to log in and see just what their lobbyists have been up to. This wouldn’t address all potential chicanery, but it would at least help to ensure all parties are on the same page. Marlowe isn’t so sure, though. As head of the American League of Lobbyists, he tried to get the organization to adopt strong disclosure principles that would have required more people to register as lobbyists in a public database. That effort was ultimately dropped. Now he says any additional reporting requirements are only likely to increase what he sees as an even bigger problem—the expanding ranks of unofficial lobbyists who peddle influence off the books. Authors: Kevin Hartnett

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