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“The founders [of the United States] certainly understood that the right to petition Congress was needed to provide information required for good policy formulation … but when some segments of society become so strong with so many resources to manipulate the policy process that they diminish the voice of others, we see an equal diminution of the quality of our democracy,” said John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, at an event Monday. CAP and American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies jointly hosted a series of expert panels that discussed the influence of special interests on public policy.
Lobbyists are often demonized for using money and trickery to sway the direction of public policy. But the panelists ceded that lobbying is a demonstration of the people’s ability to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” as outlined in the First Amendment. The problem is that lobbying tends to exacerbate political divides because the groups that can afford lobbyists tend to gain more power than those that cannot.
The panelists also agreed that the influence of special interests goes beyond lobbying. “Any effort to try to regulate the excess influence of outside special interests that focuses only on lobbying is going to lose a major part of what’s going on here,” said Scott Lilly, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Lilly explained that beyond the direct lobbying of congressmen, special interest influence includes grassroots phone calls, mailings, canvassing, and media advertising. If regulators focus only on lobbying rules, they’ll make little progress on solving the issue.
Wendell Potter, a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy and a former director of communications at CIGNA, said that public relations campaigns by interest groups affect the legislative process by trying to manipulate public opinion in favor of legislation the interest groups want or don’t want. Potter referred to the health industry “invisible persuasion” that killed reform in the 1990s.
Potter explained that this influence is growing as investigative journalism gives less and less attention to government and the forces that influence it. “Newsrooms are shrinking and investigative journalism seems to be vanishing; the number of PR people long ago surpassed the number of working journalists in this country.”
Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, said that the Obama administration is committed to fair and transparent special interest rules. The problem is that these rules are difficult to establish in a practical way. The administration banned lobbyists’ input while crafting the stimulus package, but special interests were still able to meet with officials and influence how the money was distributed.
Joseph J. Minarik, senior vice president and director of the Research Committee for Economic Development, pointed out that the legal definition of lobbying is so arbitrary and specific that it ignores a large portion of special interest influence. For example, he asked why groups aren’t penalized for giving gifts like “a big screen TV” to their congressman even if this isn’t technically lobbying.
The panelists didn’t push for new lobbying regulations, but they said regulators’ focus needs to be on congressional ethics and transparency. William Luneburg, professor at the University of Pittsburg School of Law and co-author of The Lobbying Manual: A Complete Guide to Federal Law Giverning Lawyers and Lobbyists, feels that “if the requirement of reporting is good enough for those people that go to talk to members of Congress about issues … having the members of Congress put their schedules out to the public would be a good thing.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, went further to suggest that the real problem is not with special interests, but with legislators. “[Congress comes] up with all these new penalties for lobbyists and they don’t want to focus instead on their own conduct,” she said. Members of Congress are quick to point the finger of unethical conduct at lobbyists and special interest groups without noticing the three fingers pointing back at them.
For more on this event please see its events page.