Lobbyists despised but not ridiculed

Even in the world of humor, lobbyists get no respect.

Lawyer jokes are legion, car salesmen are lampooned routinely, but the occupation the country despises most - it’s been measured by Gallup and, yes, lobbyists rank dead last - doesn’t even merit ridicule.

“It may be that some people are so disreputable you don’t even kid about them,” says Alan Rosenthal” href=”/themes/?Theme=Alan+Rosenthal” >Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University professor who has studied lobbying.

It’s the dreaded L-word, and it seems to be getting dirtier. Both leading presidential candidates, John McCain” href=”/themes/?Theme=John+McCain” >Sen. John McCain and Barack Obama” href=”/themes/?Theme=Barack+Obama” >Sen. Barack Obama, are in the midst of witch hunts to root out any offensive lobbyists from their campaign staffs, and they are only the most prominent promoters of what has become a potent political caste system. The lobbyists are the untouchables.

Yet lobbyists themselves protest they’re an integral part of the process of government, specifically protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right “to petition the government for redress of grievances.”

“It’s instructive that the only two constitutional rights you have to register for are to petition and to keep and bear arms,” said Michael McKenna” href=”/themes/?Theme=Michael+McKenna” >Michael McKenna, an energy lobbyist. “Only people who would like to do government in secret, who would like to craft and execute public policy in secret, are afraid of lobbyists. The real reason why some people oppose lobbyists is because we’re a counterbalance to the professionalization of government.”

Compared with other despised professionals, lobbyists are a low unto themselves.

A Gallup survey taken late last year queried lobbyists’ standing versus that of other professionals on ethics and honesty. Lobbyists were the worst, with 58 percent ranking them “low” or “very low” - worse than car salesmen, Congress members and lawyers.

Even lawyers get royal treatment from Hollywood, with shows such as “Law & Order” completing its 18th season and having fostered two spinoff series. By contrast, the 2003 HBO series “K Street,” which focused on lobbyists and their role in government, lasted all of 10 episodes.

Lobbyists said that’s because they’re inherently boring folks, doing wonkish jobs. Yet Washingtonians see near-magical powers in them: the ability to make millions of dollars of taxpayer money disappear, to make investigations into their cronies stop cold and even to make sure mom-and-apple-pie legislation never gets to the president’s desk.

Good, bad and ugly

The job was further sullied in recent years by coverage of Jack Abramoff, a Republican-connected lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials, among other felonies. Thanks to that, Abramoff became an exception to lack of jokes about lobbyists, having been the subject of repeated late-night television jibes.

There are more than 30,000 lobbyists in Washington, but probably not a single business card that has the word on it. Most of them go by fancier titles such as “government relations director,” but the government knows who they are - they’re required to register with Congress, and they face fines of up to $50,000 for failing to report.

In less persnickety times, the Willard InterContinental hotel, on the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, seemed proud to claim that the term had been coined in its own halls by President Ulysses S. Grant, who used to hang out in the hotel’s lobby and complained about the power players who swarmed him, calling them “damned lobbyists.”

Nowadays, the Willard has backed off in the face of competing claims from other quarters, such as British Parliament, where the public could go to a lobby and meet with members. The Willard now only claims to be the site where Grant “popularized” the term, and the hotel’s director of publicity says, with what sounds like a note of relief, that the hotel’s lobby is no longer a gathering spot for the profession’s practitioners.

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