Media hypocrisy and lobbying

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What a difference an election makes. No one issued a memo or formal declaratory judgment, but guess what? It’s now okay to meet with lobbyists again on Capitol Hill. They still can’t buy a staffer a peanut butter sandwich and a Dr. Pepper, but K Street representatives have morphed from crooks to counselors, from the “culture of corruption” incarnate to strategic “stakeholders.” Yes, influence peddlers are back in vogue in this city, at least according to the media.

Let’s be clear. No seismic shift in the actual work of these advocates occurred in the past few months, but the press coverage transformed. Media hypocrisy on the subject of lobbying has been breathtaking this year — a clear double standard exists. When Republicans held the majority and lawmakers met with K Street representatives, it personified special-interest politics, and the stench of pond scum from the Washington swamp dripped from nearly every word journalists wrote. But today, when Democrats work with lobbyists, the narrative is different. The press now portrays these interactions as examples of smart, strategic “outreach” and “dialogue.”

A degree in rocket science is not required to solve this equation. Most in the press corps are more comfortable philosophically with a Democratic majority. “Thank God,” many in the media now think, “we got rid of ‘those people.’ ” Over the past couple months many reporters wrote in glowing terms about “high-tech Democrats” from K Street meeting regularly with Democratic Hill staff to exchange information and ideas; and about the Congressional Black Caucus formalizing its connections with lobbyists, including getting briefings over dinner with corporate representatives. “We plan to have more [meetings]. It’s just getting organized,” a Democratic lawmaker recently told Roll Call. And when liberal groups like Change America Now, funded heavily by unions, coordinate with other organizations to “juice up the attacks” on Republicans, as The Washington Post wrote last week, it’s as if Jimmy Stewart was reincarnated to fight for truth, justice and the American way from a K Street suite.

Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Democrats meeting, coordinating or exchanging information with lobbyists and interest group representatives. I’m all for it. These advocates help make the process work more effectively and efficiently. Indeed, lobbyists can and do assist both political parties in Congress by mobilizing grass-roots support, providing financial resources and offering smart strategic advice.

University of Michigan political scientists Richard L. Hall and Alan V. Deardorff reach a similar conclusion in a recent article in the American Political Science Review. “Professional lobbyists are among the most experienced, knowledgeable, and strategic actors one can find in the everyday practice of politics,” they write. Some lobbyists who used to work in the Clinton White House or for Democratic leaders on the Hill are now being redeployed as outside advisers to the new majority, and the system works better due to their expertise and background.

My concern is focused on the bulk of the press coverage and its glaring double standard. Some in the media even get the joke. Writing about the relatively benign treatment of Democrat-aligned groups like America Coming Together and the Media Fund during the 2004 elections, Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, in their book, “The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008,” underscore my point.

“If a comparable right-wing effort had been launched, the press coverage would have been suspicious, antagonistic, and uncompromising,” they write. But these 2004 activities — like Democrats working with lobbyists now — are examples of what Messrs. Halperin and Harris call a “dog that didn’t bark” story, revealing the media’s cultural, ideological and personal sympathies. To their credit, these two veteran reporters nail it, “But disclaimers do not erase the fact that there often is a tilt to media assumptions — most important, about which side gets the benefit of the doubt and which side gets roasted.”

So lobbyists are back in vogue, using their experience to help Democrats make better public policy and coordinate with critical stakeholder groups. It’s all part of what now makes the dance of legislation swing more smoothly, successfully, and productively, according to today’s media interpretation. Now that the Democrats are back in charge, “public spirited outside advocates” have expelled the “evil lobbyists,” and the Circadian rhythms of this city hum with warm harmony. At least until the Republicans take over again.

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