I am not a lobbyist. But I have been in and around government and politics since before I came to Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s to lead the Democratic Party. I’ve known a lobbyist or two in that time and hired many of them at Akin Gump. Lobbying is at times maligned, perhaps rightfully so. But it is also a fixture in our democratic system of government, and essential to it.
Has lobbying changed over the last 50 years? Yes. In form and function, policy advocacy in Washington has evolved tremendously. That’s happened partly to keep pace with the increasing size and complexity of the federal government; partly as a result of the internationalization of the U.S. economy and our government’s active role in global political and economic affairs; partly through advancements in technology; and partly due to the increasing sophistication and participation of our citizens in politics and policy issues.
The result has been the growth and influence of in-house corporate lobbyists, trade associations, law firm policy groups, polling organizations and public relations companies, to name a few. The last half century has seen American participatory democracy redefined. Community organizations, issue advocates, non-governmental organizations, think tanks and individual citizens at the “grass roots” are influencing government decisions like at no prior time in our history, and in a manner every bit as sophisticated as the so-called hired guns in Washington.
Federal policy advocacy also has become increasingly complex. Lobbyists in the 21st century often function like operatives in a political campaign, simultaneously coordinating substantive policy messages, coalitions and stakeholder groups, media relations, grass roots and survey research in furtherance of policy initiatives narrow and broad alike. Follow any noteworthy legislation before Congress and you will find all manner of lobbying campaigns under way.
Of course, technology has changed the manner of lobbying as much as any other factor. E-mail can provide instantaneous access to policymakers and facilitate the rapid dissemination of information and exchange of ideas. “Blogging” is now a cottage industry and a fixture in how our politicians receive information and share positions. And the Internet is the new town hall, providing access to government action as well as a means of participating in policymaking as never before. The 2004 election certainly demonstrated the importance of the Internet as a conduit for political participation, particularly for fundraising.
For the most part, the growth of lobbying has been a healthy process with positive results. Our officials are receiving more input from citizens from all walks of life affected by governmental policies. I agree with Thomas Jefferson’s argument that “democracy is cumbersome, slow and inefficient, but in due time the voice of the people will be heard and their latent wisdom will prevail.”
But lobbying cannot be divorced from either the political process or the functioning of government. If I were to define two curses in our political system today, they would be its over-dependence on money and the partisanship which now infects Washington. And lobbying plays a role in both of these phenomena.
Today, money plays too prominent a role in shaping the policy process. There is no doubt that Members of Congress spend too much time raising money. As a result, lobbyists are often turned into fundraisers. This is a cycle that can breed impropriety and scandal.
That said, while the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law has not stopped the flow of money into campaign accounts on Capitol Hill — nor was it intended to — it is an important reform. Likewise, I would count the transparency and disclosure in our campaign finance system among the most positive developments in political participation in the past 50 years.
Partisanship is another phenomenon, both integral to our nation’s history and at times off-putting in its manifestations. The pursuit of political gain in the name of party loyalty too often displaces the pragmatic compromise that can make our system work so well.
In the modern lobbying context, I have seen elected officials use partisanship in an attempt to influence the manner in which companies and associations hire advocates. This is cynical and wrong, and beyond the scope of the responsibilities of elected officials. It also prompts appropriate criticism of a lobbying community that would bend to such pressure. I do not think it naïve or old fashioned to suggest that merit, intellect and ability, rather than one’s party affiliation or history of financial contributions, should remain paramount in such decisions. To act otherwise undermines the potential for more enlightened participation in federal policymaking from the private sector.
I am a Democrat who has served in both the Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush administrations. I also founded the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where attorneys of diverse backgrounds and political affiliations work side-by-side to serve client interests with distinction. In fact, Akin Gump’s two lobbying groups, located in our Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, offices, are made up of both Republicans and Democrats. I mention this only to emphasize that the healthy professional exchange of partisan ideas can coexist with bipartisan advocacy.
In my many years in private practice, representing and serving on the boards of major corporations and as a public official, I have seen the entrepreneurial genius, commercial creativity and public benefit provided by companies of all varieties participating in the political process. Their contributions extend to the formulation of our nation’s laws and policies, to which companies often dedicate substantial time, expertise, and resources that might not otherwise be available to our nation’s policymakers.
Those of us who both participate in and understand well how our political process and government work owe it to those beyond the Beltway whom we may assist to act responsibly, ethically and with a good deal of common sense. The health of our democracy depends on it.
Robert S. Strauss is a senior executive partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.