Thursday, May 25, 2006

Lobbying and Its Discontents

We're often put in the unenviable position of having to defend the work that we do. Lobbying, and the saga of Jack Abromoff is the latest example, is not an activity that people rate right up there with heart surgery or fire fighting. We do, however, think that lobbying has gotten a bad rap.

Part of this bad rap comes from the fact that most people tend to want to view politics in some kind of idealized, Hallmark card way. In this view elected officials should be folks imbued with the public good whose only concern is the overall welfare of the citizenry. Inevitably this view founders on the reality of politics and when it does, cynicism disillusion and discontent follows.

The reality of politics is the often messy tussle of various so-called special interests, something we have commented on before. It is not only messy it is also no place for the faint hearted. When public policy is at stake there are winners and losers. The allocation of scarce resources provokes a great deal of vicious in-fighting among competing interests.

What is often missing in the public commentary about this process is the observation that almost all of the competing interests have some degree of merit. For every policy winner who gets legislation passed or a contract let there is some amount of public benefit that accrues. The developer who wins an RFP gets to build a project that provides jobs and homes and amenities that benefit a larger public constituency.

Quite often the special interest is a union that represents the interests of thousands of workers. What's "special" to some observers is a public interest to others. The genius of the democratic system is the way in which it allows all of these interests to interplay in the over all policy dance that ends up with what we believe is the best approximation of what the public good stands for.

Which brings us to yesterday's City Council lobbying reform, legislation that Richard Lipsky describes in today's Newsday as "a bill {that} overestimates the impact that lobbying has..." Perhaps a better word in this context would be "mischaracterizes" rather than overestimates.

It goes back to the heart of our original observation that people tend to want to see the political process as "pure" and when it proves to be something different we get the kind of moral impulse that is inherent in the lobbying package passed yesterday. As Lipsky points out the impulse behind lobbying reform tends to ignore the fact that "lobbyists often push issues that genuinely lead to better public policy for New Yorkers..." Our final point here is that Machiavelli got a bad rap as well.