Ask a Lobbyist: Caveat Emptor

Every week, our Anonymous Lobbyist answers your questions about how laws get made and why they probably shouldn't. If you have a question about the dirty business of doing business in Washington, ask us.


This week: Lobbyists work for you!

Who would pay a lobbyist & why?

Ah, the eternal question. Well, I say again, with 30,000 registered lobbyists in Washington (and untold numbers in state capitals and doing grassroots organizing), I'd say that pretty much anyone will pay a lobbyist for any reason under the sun. I mean, generally your everyday Joe on his own doesn't hire a lobbyist, but AARP has a bunch of them in-house working for him after he turns 50. Or, a group like the Creative Coalition hires firms to represent its interests, which are mainly providing actors and musicians with a platform to talk about their issues and probably more arts education funding. Hell, I've even personally been visited by some random rich dude who decided that the U.S. should have a VAT and hired a lobbyist to get that going. So, pretty much everyone pays a lobbyist at some point, either through belonging to some organization or on their own.

What is perhaps a more complicated question is why someone would pay me (or my fellow patriots) a salary or a huge fee to try to convince the government to do something that is right/important. For one, I think that reasonable people can disagree on the means even if they agree on the ends -- but Washington isn't full of reasonable people, and no one agrees even on what ends are desired. There is no one view of right, or important, and everyone is just kind of muddling around trying to figure out what it, and then trying to figure out which of the approximately 10,000 pieces of legislation does that. But, everyone has a different view, and every piece of legislation affects different people differently.

And, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of running a government that serves 300 million Americans (and affects, at least indirectly, with the lives of several billion other people), it's a little more complex than most people think. Legislation has unintended consequences, and there are (almost) always going to be winners and losers, except maybe in post office naming bills. Lobbyists get hired to try to break through the cacophony of 535 different politicians and their thousands of staff talking about like 10,000 pieces of legislation to try to show how something (or lots of things) will hurt or help those that pay Congress members' and lobbyists' salaries. And adding 30,000 lobbyists' voices to the mix just makes being heard that much more difficult.

What is the oddest trade association, professional organization, or other group you've run across during your work in Washington? Have you ever come across the name of such a group and thought to yourself, Holy crap *They* have their own lobbyist?

Ooh, that's a hard one. This is actually a favorite cocktail party game in Washington, sorta like 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon but for Washington nerds. After you name one, someone is required to say "There's an association for everything."

Look, there's a group for every conceivable medical, scientific and engineering specialty, for every kind of manufacturing and manufacturer, for every type of small business, for different kinds of lawyers, for different kinds of farmers... And nearly every one of them has their own lobbyist.

I mean, outside the Beltway, the American League of Lobbyists probably tickles a couple of funny bones. Yes, that's right, lobbyists have their own, ahem, lobbyists, at their own professional organization. And they offer professional development, which has nothing to do with drinking heavily, stabbing anyone in the back or avoiding/finding lecherous Congress Members, sadly. I'd probably join if they did.

Do you ever find yourself employed by two clients on opposing sides of the same issue? How do you handle this potentially profitable conflict of interest?

I have not, but that's not because I wouldn't. Lobbyists -- unlike lawyers -- aren't necessarily required to disclose conflicts of interests to clients, so it's definitely a buyer-beware situation.

But, buyers should beware regardless, actually. Even if your hired-gun lobbyist isn't actively working the other side of your issue (or isn't the one who caused your issue in the first place to scare up some business), he's still got a conflict of interest going on because his primary interest is always going to be his continued employability. While an in-house lobbyist might be willing to burn someone for his/her direct employer, a contract lobbyist is never going to do that because he's got other contracts. And, if you're talking approps lobbying, all his clients are essentially competing for an earmark out of the same pool of

money -- even if you're not competing for the same earmark with another client, you're definitely competing for the same money. So, when you hire a bloodsucking, sleazy lobbyist, you really do get what you pay for.

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