Lobbyists are not popular. When people think of lobbyists they tend to think of Jack Abramoff – who served three and a half years on a conspiracy conviction. In the popular mind the practice of lobbying and the influence of money seem as one.
This is unfortunate. Lobbying and political money are closely linked, but remain distinct. If not careful, an inquest into one can result in harm to the other.
Lobbying is a fundamental right in America. The idea of lobbying appears in the Federalist Papers, particularly in #10 when James Madison talks about factions in a republic. Madison had a keen understanding of human nature. He understood that people tend to coalesce around common traits, be they religion, occupation, community, or whatever. Eventually, people being people, one group will seek advantage over another group. It is a competitive, if not survival, instinct that can not be washed away by legislative fiat.
The governing question in a free society is how to handle factions. Madison answered.
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”
Unable to eliminate differences of opinion, Madison sought balance. Brilliantly, rather than creating officials and obstacles to enforce among factions some equity as determined by third parties, Madison sought to play off faction against faction, and provide for cross-cutting factions, several of which every man can readily identify. Thus, lobbying is enshrined in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The first amendment safeguards free speech, freedom to assemble, and the right to petition government. Exercise all three at once and you are lobbying.
New York State law defines lobbying as, essentially, any attempt to influence the decision making of government. The squeamish can adopt the euphemism “advocacy,” but lobbying is natural, inevitable, and – in my estimation – adviseable.
A friend recently mentioned a three question test that can determine whether or not you should be involved with “advocacy.” Does the state do anything that affects you? Could the state do something that affects you? Should the state do something that affects you? If you can answers yes to any of these questions, you need to make your voice heard.
Whether or not you realize it, everyone already has some sort of lobbyist. If you are a member of AAA or AARP you have a lobbyist. If you have an occupation, or are unemployed, or collecting retirement, you have a lobbyist. Attend a church? Participate in a sport? Visit a library? You have a lobbyist.
Your elected representative to a legislative body is little more than your community lobbyist as it is their presumptive job to represent the interests of the people in their area. In reality, there are many people representing some part of your interests, yet the stigma persists. It is worthwhile to explore why, but we will start with a review of what a lobbyist actually does, in the next essay.
In the meantime, if you want more, visit my friend Tom Shanahan who has been marking this argument longer than I have.