Michael Kinsley and the Lobbyist Factory

Michael Kinsley’s singularly ungracious column in the Washington Post yesterday took the occasion of the death of longtime Democratic Beltway lobbyist Anne Wexler to denounce that favorite scapegoat of liberals, the influence of lobbyists in Washington. But Kinsley is not serious about the influence of lobbyists, because unaddressed in his diatribe is the source of their power in the first place.

Kinsley notes Wexler’s background as a principled liberal, and bemoans how her work as a lobbyist strayed from that:

Wexler was a pioneer of bipartisan lobbying — the ultimate in cutting-edge moral neutrality — in which one firm supplies both well-connected Democrats and well-connected Republicans.

Kinsley then moves in to denounce the entire process of representing paying clients in advocating their interests before the political branches of government:

And what is wrong with this? After all, the Constitution guarantees each of us the right to petition our government for the redress of our grievances. Plenty is wrong. First, there is nothing in this list of services about determining which side of a legislative dispute happens to be correct before jumping in on the side that has hired you. Second, if the lobbyists’ claims about being able to affect the outcome of political disputes are even close to being true, this tilts democracy in favor of those who can afford to hire them. And third, what a waste of a lot of smart people’s time! What might Anne Wexler have accomplished for causes that she really believed in if she hadn’t spent the last three decades of her life taking on any cause that walked in the door with a checkbook in hand?

Kinsley is right that making a living this way is a departure from principled political advocacy – but so is most of what private-sector enterprises do. In the legal profession, for example, there are a variety of limits (some personal, some institutional, some legal-ethical) on what clients and causes a lawyer will represent, but fundamentally, the lawyer’s job, or the lobbyist’s, is to speak for the interests of the client before the power of the State. That may be neither as pure a cause as political activism nor as socially productive as private enterprise that caters to the public, but it is a necessary function and there is nothing dishonorable about it. In 2008, amidst a campaign season with even more than the usual huffing and puffing about the evil of lobbyists, both parties nominated presidential candidates who had themselves worked as lobbyists – Barack Obama as a “community organizer,” John McCain as a Capitol Hill “Congressional Liaison” for the Navy. Neither job involved representing private institutional interests, but both were basically lobbying roles: that is, special pleading before the elected branches of government on behalf of their clients, in Obama’s case the community interests chosen by his organization, in McCain’s case the branch of the armed services in which he served. People like Kinsley would no doubt argue that these are more virtuous interests to lobby for than private companies, but in many cases that depends on the merits of the issue – the very thing Kinsley bemoans as being disregarded when lobbyists put their clients’ interests first.

In any event, if Kinsley was serious about limiting the role of lobbyists, he would have to recognize that the explosive growth of lobbying as an industry unto itself in recent decades is a symptom, not the disease itself. The disease is the pervasive intrusion of the federal government into picking winners and losers in the economy, and that intrusion plays precisely the same role in the lobbying industry that the growth of litigation does in the legal profession. From the perspective of a corporate client, spending money on lobbyists only makes sense if lobbyists can deliver for their clients either (1) government favor, (2) protection from government hostility, or (3) the opposite results for their competitors. Prior to the New Deal, there were precious few lobbyists in Washington because the federal government’s role in doing any of those things to particular private businesses was much more limited. The growth of the regulatory state, the increasing complexity of the tax code, and the growth and specificity of the federal budget have all created vast opportunities for the federal government to make decisions that redirect profits and losses among private businesses with the stroke of a pen.

The Obama era in Washington is nothing if not an effort to vastly expand the role of the federal government in determining the favor or punishment doled out to companies and industries, greatly exceeding what is already an overgrown favor factory. The legislation pushed by this White House and Congress – and cheered by media liberals like Kinsley – presents an endless parade of new opportunities for the shaping of rules and the doling out of appropriations: who gets stimulus money, and on what conditions? Who gets a bailout, and will it be structured to benefit some interests (the cash for clunkers program essentially funnels taxpayer money to the automakers to institutionalize a bailout designed to insulate the UAW from the consequences of the industry’s labor costs and practices) and harm disfavored ones (used car dealers). How will the health care bill help or harm insurers, hospitals, companies that provide health insurance, unions, malpractice lawyers, etc.? (There was a report that Wal-Mart was supporting Obamacare because it expected the bill to put more costs on Target – even if that’s not accurate, it’s illustrative of how corporations will evaluate the bill and how their support can be negotiated). What conditions will attach to cap-and-trade provisions as they apply to varied industries? No serious adult should be so naive as to be surprised when the end product benefits powerful moneyed interests who know how to work the system. With government decisions reaching further into more industries, and the details of those incursions buried in thousand-page bills nobody reads, it can’t possibly be a better time to be a lobbyist.

Oh, of course, restrictions – many of them cosmetic – can be placed upon the how and the where of lobbying, but none will change the fundamental dynamic that as long as private businesses see government power as a determinant of their success, they will use every means at their disposal to influence the course of that power, and the nature of people in political power will always be to be susceptible to being influenced.

If you want money out of politics, get politics out of money. If you want to stop influence peddling, go after the influence, not the peddling. If Michael Kinsley was serious about thinking the growth of lobbying a bad thing, he would not be denouncing the symptom while cheering for the disease.