Monday, June 16, 2008

Lobbyists and the "Special Interests"

We've been commenting for a while about the false dichotomy between special interests and the so-called public good. Generally, the special interests are demonized while the idea of a public good is reified. The reality, as Michael Barone underscored yesterday in a prescient piece for Real Politics, is starkly different: "Behind this stigmatization of lobbyists is the notion that the failure to produce legislation in the public interest stems from the existence of lobbyists. Which is obviously nonsense."

This basic understanding of how government works is being caricatured by both Barack Obama and John McCain in their efforts to appear to be above these nefarious special interests. The one person who really got it was Hillary Clinton, and she had the forthrightness to make the case right in front of the Daily Kossacks convention. As Barone points out: "While Obama and John Edwards were lambasting lobbyists, Clinton said: "You know, a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They actually do. They represent nurses. They represent, you know, social workers. They represent ... yes, they represent corporations. They employ a lot of people."

Of course, this won't stop all of the misrepresentation by pols who want to appear that they represent the greater good, the concept that somehow transcends the tawdry interplay of interests. And Barone properly lauds Clinton's stand: "That's why I was pleased to see Clinton defend lobbying not only for those whom her Democratic audience considers good interests (nurses, social workers) but those they don't (corporations). Implicitly, she's rejecting the distinction made by the head of the Humane Society of the United States, who recently contrasted "special interest lobbyists" (presumably those working for profit-making interests) with "socially responsible lobbyists" (those working for nonprofits). But even lobbyists for nonprofits have a monetary motive: to keep their (often six-figure) salaries flowing in."

And we would add to this the fact that just because a group arrogates to itself the mantle of some public good-whether it be the environment, consumers, or the interests of low income folks-doesn't mean that its agenda is good for the larger polity-or even for the cause that they claim to advocate for; which goes equally as well for those groups with "public interest" in their name.

The whole idea of a "socially responsible" lobbyist is absurd, and this comes from someone who has often represented the interests of the less well-connected in major real estate battles over the past twenty five years. We're all representing legitimate interests, and the idea is to, hopefully, create a balance so that one interest doesn't dominate: competition is good, and without it, there will often be abuses that hurt the less organized segment of the population.

As Barone points out, the legislative agendas being advanced by both candidates this fall will have profound ramifications on us all; and it behooves all of the groups potentially impacted to offer an organized response. As Barone says: "More important, both candidates are proposing healthcare, carbon emission and tax changes -- legislation that will, and should, face heavy lobbying. Which is fine: Such laws will have enormous ramifications, and everyone who wants to should chime in. Even -- if I can use that dreaded word again -- lobbyists."