Up to a Point: In Defense of Lobbyists

P.J. O’Rourke explains why Washington’s despised influence-peddlers are freedom’s last line of defense.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Lobbyist. The very word sends a shudder through every upstanding citizen who believes in the dignity and gravitas of American government -- as if George Washington were being pictured naked, lowering himself into a bathtub full of live squid.

Stand down, upstanding citizen. And go on, get outta here. Nobody believes in the dignity and gravitas of American government. Nobody in living memory ever has.

The term “lobbyist” supposedly was coined during the well-corrupted (and well-soaked) presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Various political high-binders, jack-legs, and bagmen hung around the lobby of the Willard Hotel waiting to promote shady special interests by plying Grant with free drinks and cigars. The Willard Hotel was Grant’s favorite haunt.

This is a story that is, as we journalists say, “too good to check.”

I moved to Washington in 1988 with the folk etymology of lobbyist firmly in mind. I was on the lookout for binding of high office to low purpose, for corporations marking their territory by pissing on the lampposts of democracy, and for fellows who dole out sacks of swag to Washington Insiders.

I will now confess that I spent some time in the lobby of the Willard Hotel myself. Maybe, as a newly minted Washington Insider, I’d be plied with a few free drinks and cigars to promote shady special interests.

(By the way, why is special interests always shady while special needs is practically an accolade?)

I persisted in my suspicion of lobbyists until I became friends with Rick Robinson, the Legislative Director and Chief Counsel to then-Representative(later Senator)Jim Bunning.

Bunning is the former Philadelphia Phillie who pitched the June 21, 1964 perfect game against the New York Mets, the first National League perfect game in 84 years.

He pitched a perfect game in Congress too, as far as I’m concerned. Ideology aside, he was the most decent, honest, thoughtful, and straightforward elected official I met during my 15 years in Washington.

And equal to Bunning in decency, honesty, fullness of thought, and forwardly straight talk was Rick Robinson. He’s now the author of an excellent series of D.C. thrillers. But back then his main thrill was wading through the 720-page “Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade” Act of 1990, which poured $50 billion into a hole in the ground, and that’s a “FACT.”

After a long day of him wading and me watching him in the muck, cocktails were required. And – although we did not go to the Willard Hotel – the subject of lobbyists did come up.

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I opined about lobbying – smart clients hiring smart guys who use smart tactics to get smart with the government.

Rick said, “Lobbying is not about smart. Lobbying is about stupid.”

I said, “Lobbyists aren’t stupid.”

“Of course not,” Rick said, “legislators are stupid. Take a congressman from Iowa, for example. He is perfectly capable of introducing a bill requiring all cars to run on corn stalks instead of gasoline. He gets together with a congressman from Maine and you’ve got a bill requiring all cars to run on corn stalks and potatoes. They get together with a congressman from Florida and you’ve got a bill requiring all cars to run on corn stalks, potatoes, and orange juice. The three of them get together with a congressman from California... Pretty soon you’ve got a bill in Congress – with majority support – requiring all cars manufactured after 2001 to run on corn stalks, potatoes, orange juice, and the star power of Julia Roberts.”

“If it weren’t for lobbyists,” Rick said, “that bill would pass without a single congressman hearing anything from car-makers, fuel refiners, restaurants serving hash-browns and Tropicana, or Julia Roberts’s agent.”

“Sometimes the lobbyists persuade us,” said Rick, “and sometimes they persuade us that they’re full of crap. But they’re worth listening to because the lobbyists know what effect a given piece of legislation will have on the businesses, manufacturers, or voter blocs that they represent.”

As Christopher Buckley, author of the best political satire novels ever, says, “A lobbyist is a whore you pay to keep from getting screwed.”

I got to know some of these K Street streetwalkers and found them delightful people, with the proverbial heart of gold or, at least, a gimlet eye for it. And, again, I now confess, I had an occasional Bourbon and stoogie on the cuff.

What with the federal government assing and elbowing its way into every cove and cubby of personal life, I became convinced that soon everyone would need a lobbyist the way everyone needs a tax accountant. The more so after Rick Robinson’s corn stalks joke came to an ethanol reality punch line with The Energy Policy Act of 2005’s Renewable Fuel Standards making me pour corn liquor into my car instead of myself.

Now it’s election season, with the requisite chucking of insults at this candidate or that about beholdenness to one shady special interest or another. And I thought it was time to write in defense of lobbyists, the people who actually are being insulted.

But first I went to Washington to talk to a lobbyist friend. I’ll call him Eric “Otter” Stratton, after a character in Animal House whom he and I admired in a younger day. Eric lobbies for an industry of benign usefulness, non-partisan in nature, and over which no cloud of serious controversy looms. He would, I thought, be a perfect spokesmen for the virtues of the craft.

I told Eric how Rick Robinson had peeled the blinders from my eyes.

“Ha!” said Eric. “I wish. Where have you been for the last decade?”

“Uh, up in New Hampshire,” I said.

“Lobbying is not the way it used to be,” Eric said. “It’s fucked.”

What had been intended as an on-the-record interview swiftly went off. Eric has a family to feed too.

He explained the provisions of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which, piled atop the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, prevents lobbyists from doing, basically, anything.

HLOGA forbids congressional members, officers, and employees from receiving gifts from lobbyists valued at more than $49.99. The Act’s definition of “gift” stops just short of putting a monetary value on a friendly wave and hello.

“Willard Hotel?” Eric said. “I can’t buy a staffer a hamburger at the Willard Hotel unless I eat the napkin for my lunch.”

“Anyway,” he said, “Congress doesn’t pass laws anymore. Not really. Not the kind of individual laws where I can go to a representative or a senator and explain what the law would mean, pro or con, to my client. Nowadays they’re burying all the laws inside gigantic fuzzy bills.”

“Some congressmen,” he said, “still have a traditional issue-oriented relationship with lobbyists.”

“I’ll go in and point out how a certain provision in a bill would harm my client. And the congressman says, ‘I see your point. I oppose that provision too.’ Then he goes ahead and votes for the bill anyway. The next time I see him he says, ‘That was a key appropriations bill, I couldn’t vote against that.’ We call it ‘Furball Legislation.’”

“Plus,” Eric said, “Congress is punting legislation to regulators. Congress feels less inclined to get the facts. That ball is in the hands of the regulatory agency receivers.”

Eric told me about a case with which a fellow lobbyist had to cope. McDonalds wanted universal nutritional restaurant menu labeling. If Mickey D ain’t happy, ain’t nobody going to be happy. What Big Mac wanted Big Mac got, buried somewhere in the paper pyramid that is Obamacare and worded as clumsily as Joe Biden remark.

The FDA was left to decide what a “restaurant” is. The FDA said anyplace where 50 percent of square footage was devoted to preparing and serving food. Eric’s friend had go to a hearing and explain that this definition would eliminate the nation’s delis, commissaries, and school cafeterias. As a dimwit consumer affairs reporter put it to Eric’s friend, “Oh, I never thought of that.”

Eric said, “I meet with regulatory agencies. But they don’t answer to voters. They don’t answer to anybody. I go in by myself, and they’ve got twenty agency employees at the table with a dozen others calling in by speakerphone. It’s more like testifying in court than lobbying.”

I asked him, “Isn’t there some growing, sort of libertarian, anti-regulatory feeling in the country?”

He said, “I’d agree if Congress had done anything about the IRS. Basically congress’s attitude is ‘Who gives a shit about business owners? They dealt with this before. They’ll deal with it again.’”

“Maybe,” he said, “the pendulum swings on things like regulation. But gerrymandering has cold cocked the pendulum weight, stopped it dead. ‘He was elected for being too far right.’ ‘She was elected for being too far left.’ Not much room for me to get in there and sway opinion. I’ve stopped putting regulatory reform on my agenda.”

“How many of these problems,” I ask, “are unintended consequences of lobbying reform laws?”

Intended consequences,” Eric said. “All we can do now is have our industry give money to campaigns. I’ll go in for a meeting with a congressman who isn’t even listening, and the next day I’ll get a call from his campaign fund-raisers wanting to know what my client will donate. I spend more time on fund-raising than on issue influencing. They don’t even need the money. The incumbent is going to get re-elected. It’s just, ‘I’ve got more money, so I’ve got more credibility.’ This is a shell of the lobbying industry. All we are is ATM machines in pinstripe suits.”

Money spent on lobbying itself (as opposed to campaign contributions) is declining, down almost 9 percent since 2010. Advocacy group lobbying has held on but lobbyists for private enterprise aren’t getting a grip. E.g., the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $136.3 million lobbying in 2012 and $74.7 million in 2013. The number of registered lobbyists peaked in 2007 at 14,838.This year it’s 11,079.

And don’t for a moment think any of that is good news.