In Defense of Lobbying

Last weekend Eric Schmidt stated the obvious. “The average American doesn’t realize realize how much of the laws are written by lobbyists,” he said, noting that “it’s shocking how the system actually works.”

Schmidt is telling the near truth, though it depends on what the meaning of “written” is. I’d say that most of our laws are actually drafted by the Office of the Legislative Counsel — but yes, lobbyists are extremely influential in the conception, drafting, review and passage of our laws.

Say this to somebody outside the beltway and they’ll get outraged. “It’s the damn lobbyists that have taken over our country,” they’ll say. They’ll pledge to themselves to vote for the next anti-lobbyist candidate that comes around.

Say this to someone who has experience working with or on the hill, and they’ll agree, shrug their shoulders, and look at you blankly — maybe they’ll even say “so what?”

To them it’s as though someone said to the employees of Google: “the average American does not realize that our software is being written by computer programmers.”

The concept of “fighting lobbyists” in Washington, DC is about as useful as fighting the green in grass. It doesn’t make too much sense.

Lobbying the profession is neither good nor bad— it’s just filled with good or bad people. Chances are, there are some lobbyists out there fighting for stuff that you believe in. At their core, a lobbyist can be a fairly noble person— someone who decides they’re going to dedicate their life to a particular cause and will spend every day telling Congress to act. In fact, in order to fight lobbying in Washington, one needs to become a lobbyist.

Second, lobbyists tend to be experts in their field or at least they provide a bridge between Congress and the experts. We tend to elect politicians rather than scientists and web developers. Lobbyists (to an extent) provide a service to Congress by linking Congress with a “special interest group” — which is a politically loaded term for a group with a particular expertise.

Finally, is constitutionally protected by the first amendment by that pesky right to petition. That’s the same amendment that gives you the freedom of speech, religion and press. It turns out that lobbying, and thus lobbyists are about as constitutionally protected as the New York Times.

That’s not to say that Washington doesn’t have its share of absolutely rotten, disgusting people who happen to be lobbyists. But we need to start thinking intelligently about lobbying rather than having the instinctual contempt for the profession. This constitutionally protected (and to some extent, democracy dependent) profession isn’t going anywhere.

Let’s look at the math behind our representation: A member of the House of Representatives employs an average of 14 members of staff. On average, they have between 2 and five members of staff whose job it is to actually listen to constituents. It’s a lowly job— they get paid about 25,000/yr which in DC isn’t even a living wage. So let’s say that a liberal estimate for the number of people whose job it is to listen to America in the House of Representatives is 2,610. With a population of 307,006,550 people in the United States, that means there’s about 118,000 people per pair of ears on the Hill.

Let’s (unfairly) compare Congress to Comcast. Comcast has 23,000,000 cable subscribers. While I cannot find a total count of its customer service representatives, this article gives us a good idea of Comcast’s ratio: three call centers in Washington State employ 1000 customer service representatives for 1.2 million customers. That’s a ratio of 1200:1 for 24x7 service from what’s arguably the corporation with the worst customer satisfaction in America, and it’s ratio is 10x better than that of Congress. While a better comparison would involve call volume of both entities, that probably explains why people are so dissatisfied with Congress. Noise levels have gotten so high that all Congress can listen to are Lobbyists.

It’s remarkable that Congress is able to hear from the 307 million of us at all. In 1913, When Public Law 62-5 — the law that mandated that the number of representatives had to stick at 435 — went into effect, the population of the United States was just over 90 million people. That meant the ratio of Representatives to citizens was about 200,000 — now it sits at over 700,000. While inventions in the media (like the television, telephone and email) have made it easier to communicate with the masses, a tripling of population gives our Congress more than it can handle on its own.

The instinctual solution is to keep representation relative to population. But that’s not scalable. Aside from the obvious real-estate problem, there’s also the problem that at some point Congress becomes too big to effectively get anything done. Congress ought to be kept too small to fail.

The formula for influence in Washington is not money. Time plus money gets you access. Access plus political acumen buys you influence. You, the non-lobbyist constituent, don’t have time to spend on the political process— you’ve got a job, and lobbying ain’t it.

Lobbyists serve as a way to make sure issues get heard because that’s what they do full time. The problem with lobbyists isn’t that they’re lobbyists, it’s that it’s too often that bad people hire them. So when the Onion writes stories like Americans Hire High-Powered Lobbyist to Push Interests in Washington there could be a kernel of truth to it. The problem with lobbying isn’t the profession, it’s the clients.

There could obviously be other solutions to the problem of underrepresentation but one thing’s for sure— as our population grows and we stray further from what was imaginable in 1913 (present US Population puts it at ~1/5th of Earth’s 1913 population), our Democracy will suffer much greater stress. As population grows, so does the noise-level hitting congressional offices. If Congress does not restructure itself for our population levels, the influence that the clean signal from a Lobbyist has over Congress will only grow.

Betting on Congress doing nothing is usually a safe bet. There’s probably a lot of money to be made in building a marketplace for citizen services. Allowing people to hire, rate and review various lobbyists can shed more light on the process, give people more access to how Washington works and actually make Washington more responsive to what the people want.

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