There is a fundamental question raised by lobbying of the Congress. It is this: Can we temper its excesses without destroying its usefulness as a valued component of the system?
There are roughly 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington at the moment, and they spend huge sums of money on their work — $3.5 billion last year, according to the Center on Responsive Politics. This money has a direct impact not only on how members of Congress look at issues, but also on what issues they decide to look at in the first place. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it can skew what takes place on Capitol Hill toward the interests of those who can provide the money, and away from those who cannot.
Yet lobbyists are also indispensable to lawmaking. When done well, lobbying helps the governing process work. The best of its practitioners know that what lawmakers need is information — straightforward, understandable, and accurate. Lobbyists help members of Congress understand the issues before them and gauge how legislation will affect the various constituencies affected by it.
So as a nation, we are left with a challenge. How do we counter-balance the impact of all the money that lobbyists wield, so that Congress pays attention to the voices of ordinary Americans and serves the country’s best interests?
This is by no means impossible. One important measure would be complete, real-time disclosure of lobbying contacts with legislators and regulators. I’d even go further: I favor the fairly radical steps of prohibiting members of Congress from accepting contributions from firms that lobby them, and banning lobbyists from contributing to members they lobby. As reformers argue, it’s fine for lobbyists to plead their case, but they shouldn’t be able to pay off the jury.
It also makes sense to slow the revolving door between Capitol Hill and the offices of the lobby corps, and to create an institution, similar to the Congressional Budget Office, to give Congress unbiased and unvarnished analysis of pending issues each week.
Finally, I believe a big part of the answer lies with both individual members of Congress and with the American people. Members have the ultimate responsibility to assess and judge a lobbyist: where he comes from, for whom he speaks, what his interests are. They also need to ask themselves how much they’re influenced by the campaign contributions they receive and whether they are giving equal consideration to all sides on any given policy question, including how the policy might affect ordinary Americans.
Similarly, we all have to step up as Americans and engage actively with our legislators. The more vigorous the conversation between our elected representatives and their constituents the less of a hold lobbyists will enjoy.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.