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To understand government learn what lobbying really is
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When news about questionable doings on Capitol Hill appears these days, more often than not they involve lobbyists. Think of Jack Abramoff and his many spinoffs, or the ruckus over the New York Times story about John McCain and his dealings with one particular lobbyist.
Small wonder that many Americans continue to think of lobbyists as little more than back-room influence peddlers.
The truth, though, is different. Most lobbyists are hard-working professionals who understand how to navigate the political process, gain access to lawmakers and administration officials, and build a strategy to achieve their legislative goals. Whether you like the prominent place they occupy in our system, lobbyists have become such an integral part of government that you can’t really understand Washington unless you also understand the role they play.
Lobbying is a huge business. There are roughly 30,000 registered lobbyists, but that does not include the marketers, public relations experts, pollsters, support personnel and others who back up their work. One expert, American University government professor James Thurber, puts the total number in lobbying at 261,000.
This army, whose activities are aimed at influencing just 535 members of Congress and a handful of federal officials, cost and spend billions every year.
Groups with interests in Washington pay big money for lobbyists because if they’re successful, the payoffs can be huge; subsidies for business, tax breaks for corporations, immunity from suits or even from laws.
Americans tend see lobbyists as agents of special interests who get privileged access to decision-makers, in part by buying it. There’s truth to this. Many Washington lobbyists are active in raising money and support for candidates who back their positions. And lobbyists undoubtedly get the chance to press their cases on Capitol Hill with access that your average farmer or teacher can only envy.
Yet the reality is more complicated than “special interests” overwhelming “the public interest.” Lobbyists deal in facts. The best of them know that what lawmakers want is straightforward, understandable and accurate information. So on any tough policy matter, which will inevitably find Americans coming down on every side of the issue, all the various interests will be armed with good arguments that make the strongest case for their position. While it’s too simplistic to say they cancel one another out, this does mean they serve an invaluable purpose in helping lawmakers understand an issue and, perhaps even more important, to understand how various constituencies view it.
This suggests a responsibility on the part of public officials who are being lobbied. It is their job not simply to be passive recipients of information, but to sort through it, and in particular to understand that it comes with a point of view — to listen carefully, in other words, but also remember that a lobbyist presents only one side of an issue.
The skillful lobbyist, of course, will identify his or her position with the broader public good, but an equally skillful politician recognize the rhetorical chaff.
At the same time, ordinary voters should remember they have one attribute that a member of Congress prizes highly — a vote. For all the campaign contributions they hand out and access they enjoy, lobbyists don’t have the final say on whether a member of Congress gets re-elected. That’s up to the folks back home. Which is why transparency — strict reporting laws on contributions and lobbying expenditures, with easy access to that information for reporters and ordinary Americans — is so important.
For in the end, the voters have to judge whether a member of Congress has allowed lobbyists’ arguments and contributions to outweigh the interests of his or her constituents and of the public at large.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
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