One of the quirks of life in Washington, D.C., is that pretty much the only people who don’t refer to lobbyists by that name are, well, lobbyists. They’re “policy advisers” or “public relations advisers” or just plain “consultants.” Whatever they’re called, they play a huge role in making policy.
For the most part, they are able, well-informed, and skillful at what they do. And policymakers rely on them for information, research, persuasive arguments, and, of course, political support.
Though there are members of the influence industry who aren’t especially well-resourced, there are plenty who are. They write checks to politicians for speeches, dole out campaign contributions, pay for travel. They work hard to get their favored politicians elected and to rally their members at important moments. They are extremely sophisticated in the use of media, including social media, and other means of getting the public to back them.
There’s a reason for all this: the stakes are high. If they can get a few words added to or eliminated from regulations or legislation, their companies can benefit by millions and sometimes billions of dollars.
I’ve known a lot of lobbyists over the years, and respected them as hard-working, well-informed participants in the process. I’ve been helped by many of them, and misled by only a few. But I worry about the growth of the industry and its outsized weight compared to that of the ordinary American.
So what do we do about this? Part of the answer lies with robust disclosure and transparency. But we also need Congress to increase its capacity to do its own research, analysis and fact-finding. Lacking the independently provided information they need to make informed decisions, members of Congress have no choice but to rely on interest groups and lobbyists. And that’s dangerous.
Lee Hamilton is a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.