. . . But aren't all interests special?

Thomas Hale Boggs Jr.

February 17, 1993|By Thomas Hale Boggs Jr.

SHAKESPEARE'S "kill all the lawyers" has been replaced with "kill all the lobbyists." Journalists at most major publications have rushed to join the chorus. In a recent editorial, for example, the New York Times described the "threat that corporate influence and big-time lobbying represent to enlightened populism."

I agree that the system needs to be changed. Campaign finance reform, stricter lobbying disclosure rules and post-employment restrictions for government officials and employees would serve the democracy well. But few commentators ever stop to consider the legitimate role lobbyists play in policy-making.

Critics charge that the use of lobbyists by special interests is unfair, that if members of Congress respond to the influence of special interests, they are somehow acting contrary to the benefit of their constituents as a whole.

All interests are special and every individual and organization seeks to advance its own special interests. In the last quarter of 1992 alone, the House clerk listed more than 6,000 registered lobbyists, who were supported by tens of thousands of additional personnel. These individuals fight for the interests of 40,000 registered clients, including religious organizations, foreign governments, the Boy Scouts, doctors, gambling organizations, trial lawyers, consumers, environmental protectionists, baseball players -- the list goes on and on.

To cite a few of my firm's activities, is it unfair to:

Lobby for federal assistance to Chrysler to save thousands of jobs? Seek a regulatory structure to keep newspaper publishers from being forced out of business by legal monopolies? Help defeat a constitutional amendment on flag burning?

Lawyer-lobbyists serve to advocate the position of their clients. Our first role is to determine the proper forum -- the courts, Congress or a regulatory agency -- in which the client can seek to achieve its goals.

When the issue involves Congress, we prepare substantive materials explaining the issue and the likely impact on the member's district: How many jobs are at stake? What's the likely impact on the local economy? We help to identify and mobilize grass-roots constituents who agree with our client's position.

Facts are the first source of a lobbyist's power. Forty-three percent of the House members have served fewer than five years. Newspapers cannot give them the substantive detail they need. Congressional staffs are overworked and underpaid. Lobbyists help fill the information vacuum.

The second source of the lobbyist's power is money. In 1992 House races, including uncontested seats, major party candidates spent $369,000 on average. That's less than $1 per voter. Citizens see more advertising for hamburgers and beer than for political candidates. The problem with the campaign finance system lies not in the amount spent but in the incursion on a member's time that fund-raising entails. In a $500,000 campaign, the member may have to make 4,000 phone calls at two calls per contribution to get an average contribution of $250.

Lobbyists help by raising money from clients, colleagues and allies. And the help brings influence, connections and returned phone calls. But anyone can give or raise money.

The first source of power -- facts -- is essential to the democratic process. The second -- fund-raising -- we all could do without. Meaningful campaign finance reform would reduce this source of power.

To take the fund-raising burden away from the candidate, and with it the need to rely on lobbyists' assistance, we should strengthen the parties and make them the primary recipients and distributors of campaign funds. We could begin with a transition period when candidates could raise a fixed amount, which would be matched by the party. As the parties grew stronger, candidate fund-raising could be phased out.

Other reforms are needed. Lobby-disclosure rules only require the reporting of meetings with a member of Congress, to influence him or her about pending legislation, along with very limited information about the legislation involved. The rules should be amended to include contacts with executive branch officials. A central repository should be maintained with uniform reporting requirements for all types of contacts. More detail should be required on the subject involved.

Some limitation on post-government employment lobbying should be maintained. But the restriction cannot be so Draconian as to limit the talent available to the legislative and executive branches.

A third source of lobbying power has waned with time. In the 1980s, lobbyists were needed to bridge the gap of divided government. On occasions when gridlock was overcome, lobbyists usually played a significant role in bringing factions of the two parties together. Conversely, lobbyists in the '80s could use gridlock by championing partisanship in order to obtain the opposition of the White House or Congress to the proposals of the other branch.

But the American people spoke clearly in November: no more gridlock. Public officials and lobbyists alike should get that message.

The system has some problems. Too much time is spent raising money, and lobbyists play too important a function in that regard. But the democratic process works best when all "special interests" are heard and all information is available to policy-makers. Lobbyists serve an important role in the process.

Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. is a lawyer and lobbyist.

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