- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Thomas Aquinas once wrote that human laws could neither suppress all vice nor compel all virtue. And although he never met Jack Abramoff, the medieval Dominican theologian was right.

New laws won’t completely stop unethical behavior by some lobbyists — nor anyone else for that matter. Still, Congress should adopt a new round of lobbying/ethics reform now — but for some non-obvious reasons.

Lawmakers should use the reform process to educate voters about how Washington lobbying really works, because current misconceptions are both poisonous and highly inaccurate. And given the media’s broad-brush, sensationalized treatment of the entire advocacy industry extrapolated from the Abramoff affair, congressional action is now necessary gauze to dress a festering wound in public confidence.

Conservatives, in particular, should remind their constituents that lobbyists are not borne through Immaculate Conception — they are spawned by a big, powerful federal government that can reward and punish businesses and individuals. Most organizations and even private citizens hire lobbyists out of necessity. One person’s “influencing” the government is another’s “keeping my company in business and protecting jobs.” And the more complicated, expansive and multifaceted government actions become, the more the demand… and supply of lobbyists will grow. Downsizing the government Leviathan is the first step for those who want to reduce the sway of Washington lobbyists.

Don’t get me wrong; the current system is far from perfect. Refining laws and making regulatory adjustments based on new circumstances are always necessary. But I’ve been around the lobbying business in one way or another for the past 20 years, and it’s one of the most misunderstood professions in America. Events like the Abramoff caper only stoke these fires of false impression.

I was the target of lobbyists while serving as a staffer on Capitol Hill and in the White House. I’ve been a lobbyist myself for two presidents. I teach college students about lobbying at the American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies and have lectured at other major colleges on the subject. I’ve published chapters in books, academic journals and newspapers about lobbying. I work at a major public affairs firm and interact daily with professionals who lobby in local, state, federal and international venues. I know many lobbyists; I even married one — and none behave like the Abramoff-created caricature.

During my two decades in and around what the media dubs “influence peddlers,” I’ve seen that lobbyists are routinely vilified, easily caricatured and largely misrepresented. I sometimes ask my students if they are surprised I don’t wear $2,000 suits with wads of cash falling out of my pockets, or smell like a redolent mixture of a three martini lunch and a Cuban cigar. That’s certainly the image.

No doubt some are “fat” and others are “insiders,” but those “pictures in our heads,” in the words of public opinion critic Walter Lippman, are inaccurate renderings. Most people don’t understand that “lobbyists” are everyone from the Birkenstock-wearing Friends of the Earth environmental advocates, to the vice president of government affairs for Chevron donning Brooks Brothers pinstripes. They speak for teachers unions, and the men and women who manufacture school bus tires. The union guy, the lawyer, the doctor, the small businessperson and the farmer all either use or are lobbyists — a practice the Founders believed so vital it’s specifically protected in the Constitution.

Yet the contemporary void in understanding the role most lobbyists play is massive. Lobbyists supply information, analysis and feedback to lawmakers about the impact of their actions. Filling these gaps usually means public policymakers make better decisions.

But that’s not the way the press paints it — and events like the Abramoff affair only serve to fuel public cynicism with extreme and inaccurate portrayals. Assuming all lobbyists behave like the outlier is like thinking every business uses Enron accounting practices.

Congress and its constituents may feel better about reining in lobbyists if lawmakers adopt new rules or tighten up some regulations. That’s going to happen; only the specifics remain undecided. But legislators will do more good by using the reform process to explain how Washington really works, making it as transparent possible without trampling on First Amendment rights, and educating their constituents in the Thomist tradition that changing laws alone will neither perfect human conduct, nor clear up lobbying myths.

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