Martin: The Scapegoating of Lobbyists


For too long politicians have successfully used professional lobbyists as scapegoats.   They mislead constituents into believing these inaccurately stigmatized professionals are to blame for legislators’ own incompetence or malfeasance.  Catalyzed by the Abramoff scandal, politicians increasingly continue to capitalize on the negative misperceptions most Americans hold regarding the role lobbyists play in legislative processes.

Such misperceptions rely on false characterizations of lobbying as an extrinsic force corruptively extorting political outcomes. Politicians strategically play the part of victim to nefarious “interest groups” and their shrewd lobbyists.  In response to unpopular political outcomes, politicians often employ this tactic in claiming their incapability in stopping the powerful lobbyists they claim cause it.

Echoing such condemnations of lobbyists and interest groups indicates one having been deceived by this inaccurate rhetoric perpetuated by the truly culpable politicians.  Politicians and other anti-lobbying voices have successfully fooled most Americans into believing such false notions.  In a recent Gallup Poll measuring perceptions of honesty and ethics among different professions, lobbying accrued the least favorable feedback of all polled professions. Rather than reflecting the ethical state of the lobbying profession, these polls indicate stark misconceptions within the public toward it.

These misconceptions begin with the widely held notion that professional lobbyists are the primary actors engaging in lobbying.  Brian Underwood clarifies this misconception well in an immensely informative editorial:

“Examine….the definition of “lobbying.” “Lobbying” is any direct communication with legislators or their aides in hopes of achieving some legislative end…If one has ever e-mailed, called, written to, or visited a lawmaker to express an interest…. that individual has lobbied that legislator.”

Legislators disingenuously project themselves as victims, in efforts to blame lobbyists and interest groups for political outcomes directly resulting from their own actions.  In reality, lobbyists have no direct influence on legislation. None possess a strange mystical power to compel legislative outcomes favoring similarly negatively stigmatized interest groups they represent.  All they can do is advocate, the results of which depend solely on how legislators respond.

Condemnations of interest groups as threats to democratic governance epitomize the exploitation of the public’s naivety to how democracy properly functions in pluralist societies.  Every individual belongs to multiple interest groups, all represented by lobbyists.  One’s economic class, occupation, and political ideology entail one’s membership within several interest groups.  Various organizations materially embody these interest groups and lobby for political outcomes protecting or advancing the interests of the individuals they represent.

Paul Miller, President of the American League of Lobbyists, emphasized this point in the following excerpt from his 2005 essay:

“One of the misunderstood facts about the lobbying profession is that the individuals and organizations [involved]…represent the interests of every American…. If you were ever a member of the Girl Scouts. If you ever used a library, rode a snowmobile, played on a sports team. If you own a gun, if you hunt. If you’re 65 or older. If you have done any of these or thousands of other activities in this country, you have been represented at some time by a lobbyist.”

Like any profession, lobbying inevitably has some nefarious members.  However, the proportionate number of these is greatly exaggerated by social stigmatizations. Anecdotes like the Abramoff scandal are exploited to make defamatory generalizations about all members of the profession.  Surely unethical lobbyists exist, but they can do only as much as legislators allow.  Without legislators enabling them, no lobbyist can corruptively influence political outcomes.

The power and influence of lobbyists and the interest groups they represent extends only so far as legislators allowWithout Tom Delay and other governmental cohorts, Jack Abramoff wouldn’t have had success in his efforts to corruptively influence political outcomes.

Generalizing lobbyists as a source of governmental corruption is inaccurate.  An accurate assessment entails holding those with authority to stop, or enable, corruptive influences accountable. Through elections, true perpetrators of corruption can be held accountable, should they enable corruption to infiltrate our governing institutions.

Lobbyists are essential to democratic governance for reasons beyond the scope of this article (see article by Underwood).  By further restricting their first amendment rights through misguided regulative restrictions, directly resulting from the popularity they garner amongst a misled populous, we the people enable far greater dangers to our democracy while failing to hold the true executors of corruption and malfeasance accountable.

About Michael Martin

Michael Martin is a former policy intern for the Maine Policy Institute. He holds a bachelors degree in political science from Northeastern University and a law degree from Quinnipiac University, and is from Kennebunkport, Maine.

Recommended for you