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August 7, 2007

lobbying, ethics, and the impact of norms

According to David K. Kirkpatrick in The New York Times, "The new law [on ethics and lobbying that awaits President Bush's signature] has quickly sent a ripple of fear through K Street. ... 'They might as well just pull up the paddy wagon outside the Capital Grille,' one lobbyist said, referring to a clubby steakhouse near the Capitol that is a well-known K Street hangout."

We shouldn't hate or hound lobbyists. "Lobbying" means professionally petitioning the government, which is an explicit First Amendment right. I was a registered federal lobbyist myself (for Common Cause in the early 1990s), and I'm rather proud of that record.

Common Cause spent no money at all to benefit politicians: not even snacks that might cost pennies. We were Puritans in Gomorrah. At its best, lobbying is simply an exchange of ideas and information. But I don't think it ever can be only that. There must be an interface between the public sector and the organized private sector (businesses and associations). The latter will always use money to influence the former. Walling policy off from money is like separating love, sex, or religion from commerce--never entirely successful.

But that doesn't mean that any rules are as good as any others. In fact, we need reforms that go much deeper than the new ethics law. The obstacle to fundamental reform is political. Organized special interests benefit from being able to use money to influence policy. All incumbent lawmakers have some interest in preserving the status quo. The public dislikes money in politics, but this is a classic issue that pits very diffused, abstract public interests against tangible private interests. It's no contest.

Our best chance is to preserve and strengthen the moral norm that money isn't proper in politics. Love is not prostitution, the temple is not the marketplace, and lawmaking is not a business exchange. It is, or ought to be, shameful to mix any of these things.

Unfortunately, norms are fragile. When, for example, Mitt Romney chose to launch his presidential campaign before a symbolic backdrop of 400 fundraisers dialing for dollars, he flaunted--and threatened to destroy--the norm that money and government don't mix. It was like an aristocrat bragging that he has bought his title; if he gets away with it, there is no more aristocracy. The same could easily happen to the spirit of republican government and rule of law.

This is why the new ethics law is important. It makes people uncomfortable about paying for influence. It makes money in politics seem shameful, or at least shady. It therefore preserves the ethic of republican government.

According to Kirkpatrick, some lobbyists are afraid of unjust prosecution. For example, under the new law, a lobbyist could be criminally liable if his employee failed to disclose something of value that he had given to legislative staff. I don't want people to be unjustly prosecuted. But the tensions and fears that lobbyists are feeling right now result from the fundamental tension between the rules of a market and the rules of democratic government. A better solution would be more radical reform--for example, public financing of political campaigns. Perhaps the only way to achieve such a reform is to make explicit the moral tensions that currently arise at the border between the market and the government, to burden lobbyists with rules and prosecute them for violations; in short, to make them symbols of our deeper problems.

August 7, 2007 3:29 PM | category: none


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