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's the dreaded L-word, and it seems to be getting dirtier. Both leading presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain and 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, 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.
Some lobbyists are amused by the scorn, which even extends to family members.
One lobbyist, Stephen Brown, said his daughter, who attends a liberal arts college in the Northeast, revels in the notoriety of his job.
"She enjoys flaunting the fact her father's an oil company lobbyist," he said, adding that they've found a new bonding activity.
"I sat her down, and we watched [the movie] 'Thank You for Smoking,'" he said. "We made that an annual tradition."
Mr. Brown, who has lobbied for everyone from Venezuelan-owned Citgo to the Fraternal Order of Police to the Grateful Dead, said the current level of animosity isn't higher than usual.
"We're about normal. I think that a good lobbyist, an experienced lobbyist, isn't going to pay attention to this stuff for more than half a second. This, too, shall pass," he said.
That must be a relief to the budding young lobbyists in the Montana YMCA's Youth Legislature program, who are lured into signing up for lobbying rather than the program's legislature, press corps or Supreme Court with the following promise: "You will use lobbying skills in your adult life! This is a job with a real career track! So, sign up to be a lobbyist!"
According to the program's rules, lobbyists are given special treatment. Only lobbyists can fill empty legislative seats, only lobbyists can use the program's Internet connection to do research during the event, and only lobbyists are allowed to move into positions in the governor's Cabinet.
That's a far cry from the real White House, where lobbyists may be the only ones shut out of the next administration, given the direction in which the two presidential campaigns are going.
If Mr. Obama wins the presidency, he will have a hard time filling the assistant secretary slots in his administration if he refuses to hire lobbyists, and that will leave a number of angry power players in town.
"The Democratic lobbyists, having been second in line now for 14 years, this all happens just as they're about to get back to the front of the line. If I [were] a Democratic lobbyist, I would be very annoyed at this particular turn of events," Mr. McKenna said.
Still, he said, the real joke may be on Mr. McCain, who has had to ax a top fundraiser and a handful of other officials because of their lobbying connections. That has left him struggling to raise money.
Mr. McKenna blames Mr. McCain's eponymous campaign-finance reform bill for making money a dirty word in politics and for pointing to lobbyists as the conduit for that money.
"McCain did it," he said.
Mr. Rosenthal, the Rutgers professor who has written "The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States," said lobbyists suffer at the hands of their portrayal in the press, which often boils political controversies down to who gives political contributions and what their interests are.
"It's a reflection, and it goes hand in hand with the increasing lack of trust in government, and that's been on the increase since at least the '60s," he said. "Lobbyists are among the principal fall guys for the pains of democratic politics."
However, he said that ignores the fact that everyone has lobbyists working on his or her behalf, even if they don't know it. There are lobbyists for every issue, from both sides of the abortion debate to the environment to gun rights. Colleges and universities, religious denominations and states and localities hire lobbyists to advance their interests.
"If we didn't have lobbyists, we'd have to invent them," he said.
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