Monday, December 13, 2010

Lynching the Lobbyists

The NY Times, weighing in on the plight of super lobbyist Pat Lynch and the attorney general, moved quickly from the specific to the general-and used Lynch's situation to condemn the role of lobbyists in the political process: "Albany’s lobbyists have far too much power to craft legislation or, more often, kill it. State lobbying codes are scandalously unfair to regular people who don’t have the $10,000 a month that is the going rate to hire Ms. Lynch and her well-connected colleagues."

Let's deconstruct this inanity. Lobbyists are retained by a wide range of businesses, unions and good government groups to advance their particular interests. We would argue that there are thousands-if not millions-of, "regular people," whose interests are subsumed under the banner any one of these diverse interest groups. That's the way a democracy works in a mass society-where disparate individuals, regular or irregular, are not well situated to by themselves influence the political process.

That being said, there is a need to insure that the legislative process is a fair one-and that groups less well healed are treated fairly. Since we usually represents smaller business interests, we understand-and even sympathize where the Times is coming from. But we don't see how-even if the paper was given the mantle of a philosopher king-the situation could be altered so that the cure wouldn't be worse than the alleged disease.

For better or for worse, democracy in America is an interplay of competing interests. Take one issue where the Times has weighed in on-hydrofracking. In this case the Natural Resources Defense Council has led a well designed and executed lobbying campaign to ban the technique of extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing. They have made a strong case, but the other side-represented by gas interests-are pushing back; and Governor Paterson vetoed the bill NRDC pushed to pass.

Now we have no doubt that the gas folks put more money into this than did NRDC, and perhaps that's why the governor vetoed the measure, but the larger issue is that this has been a robust and public fight where money plays a role but isn't necessarily sufficient-and the final resolution has yet to be made. What would you replace this process with-and in the place of the lobbyists who or what would you substitute? The only rational approach to all of this is to try to insure that the fight among interests is as fair as possible.

The Times' peeve here is much like the one that Professor Theodore Lowi laid out in the End of Liberalism-that in the interplay of interest groups and their less than savory lobbyists, the public interest may well be lost. Which begs the question: Who do you empower to determine where the public interest lies? And if we abjure the interplay of interests, aren't we looking for-or are left with-some higher authority to impose a concept of Public Good on society?

Which brings us back to Pat Lynch-someone we like and admire for her ability to put a successful lobbying business together and represent her clients extremely well. Pat may very well have made a mistake here, one that she is paying a price for. But to use her current plight to tar all lobbying is rather shameful-and at the same time both naive and pointless if you are looking for sensible political solutions to the problems of Albany.