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The Importance Of Lobbyists

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The term “lobbyist” has been around a long time and presumably it came to us from England. Petitioners to the English Parliament were not allowed on the floor of the chambers and so they waited in the lobby to speak to their representatives–hence, the name “lobbyist.”

I could find no negative connotation to the activity as it was practiced in England, nor in the early days of our country where the practice was adopted. The first lobbyist to Congress on record was William Hull, who in 1792 was hired by the Virginia Veterans of the Continental Army to obtain an increase in their compensation for services in the Revolutionary War–certainly an understandable and honorable cause.

However, today the term lobbyist conjures up all kinds of images, most of them negative. I might go so far as to say that to most people it is a pejorative term, largely because it is most often referred to in the media in connection with some kind of scandal or corruption.

In 1987, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., devoted one of a series of historical addresses to the subject of “lobbyists.” He opened his address with this statement:

“Mr. President, in 1869, a newspaper correspondent published this vivid description of a monster in the Capitol building: ‘Winding in and out through the long, devious basement passage, crawling through the corridors, trailing its slimy length on the floor of Congress–this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent of the lobby.’ What was this awful creature? It was intended as the embodiment of lobbyists who were proliferating in the years after the Civil War and who, many believed, were corrupting the Congress. Even today, the media tend to portray legislative lobbyists as some form of monster. And yet, we realize that lobbyists play an important and essential role in the legislative process.”

The view of the correspondent that Sen. Byrd quoted was reinforced by President Grant who, about the same time, heaped scorn on the people hanging around the lobby of the Willard Hotel for the purpose of influencing legislation. He called them “lobbyists” with all the contempt he could muster. Thus was born our own version of lobbyist and starting off with a poor image.

But Sen. Byrd was correct when he said that lobbyists play an important and essential role in the legislative process. Lobbyists are an important source of information to lawmakers. We live in a very complex world today and lawmakers are called upon to make decisions on esoteric issues well beyond their own or their staff’s understanding. Almost every legislative issue brings with it conflicting points of view. Lobbyists are advocates of a point of view and one that might not be heard were it not for the role lobbyists play. In many respects, it is an educational function and by listening to all sides, lawmakers are able to make better judgments about the way a law should be framed.

In my years in Washington, the views of the National Association of Life Underwriters (now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors) were often solicited by members of Congress seeking answers to complex insurance issues. Needless to say, there were other, often conflicting, views that they had to hear, and in the end, it was the lawmaker who had to decide what was best. Sometimes we prevailed–other times we did not–but it was our lobbyists that gave us a voice and made us a player.

The state legislatures function in a similar fashion, with committees holding numerous hearings to ferret out the facts of every issue. Perhaps lobbyists play an even more important role in the state legislatures because most state lawmakers are in session only a few months and must gain their knowledge in a short period of time. However, not all lawmakers are appreciative of the help available from lobbyists.

I remember years ago, the Arizona Life Underwriters, in anticipation of the legislature’s consideration of a number of insurance issues, held a meeting for relevant committee members in order to explain the complexities of the proposals. One such legislative committee member was a longtime acquaintance of mine, so I sent him a personal note urging him to attend. Some time later I asked him why he did not attend and he replied, “I will not be lobbied by anyone.”

I also note that as the hearings on the legislation progressed, he sat there like a lump, never asking a question or contributing anything to the discussion. Overall, he was not much of a representative, and I doubt there are very many people who remember that he served several terms. When he said he would not be lobbied by anyone, he was, in fact, saying he wished no input on any issue–I guess he figured he knew it all.

Lobbyists represent “special interests,” which is another term usually presented by the media and politicians in a negative way. But we all have “special interests”–interests that affect our work, our education system, our retirement options, the way we are taxed, our religious freedoms and options, and virtually every aspect of our life. There is no one without a special interest, and somewhere there is a lobbyist exercising your right to participate in the legislative process.

Like any profession, there are always a few “bad apples” and these are the ones that the media focus upon. When asked why they do this, the usual retort is, “We don’t report the safe landings at the airport–we only report on the crashes.” And that is just the way it is and it is not likely to change.

The challenge then is: Be sure your lobbyists, whoever they may be, act with integrity and provide reliable information.


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