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Please, Don't Say "Lobbying Reform"

Democrats and Republicans are falling over each other to introduce "lobbying reform" bills -- requiring lobbyists to disclose contacts with legislators, banning trips, etc. By the end of next week, we will have between two and four lobbying reform packages, and will enter a ridiculous debate about which bill would leave fewer loopholes.

Can I take this Sunday evening calm to plead with Democrats not to go down this road. Where’s George Lakoff when we need him??? Please don’t reinforce the frame that this is a "lobbying scandal" and the villain a "lobbyist" named Jack Abramoff. That’s the other side’s frame. This is not a lobbying scandal. It’s a betrayal-of-public-trust scandal. Lobbyists have no power, no influence, until a public servant gives them power. That’s what DeLay and the K Street Project was all about. What they did was to set up a system by which lobbyists who proved their loyalty in various ways, such as taking DeLay and Ney on golf trips to Scotland, could be transformed from supplicants to full partners in government.  

Abramoff did lots of terrible things and should go to jail, but never forget that every single criminal and unethical act of his was made possible by a public official. On his own, Abramoff had no power. At another time -- say, 1993 -- he would have been a joke.

But every time we say "lobbying reform," we reinforce the idea that it is the lobbyist who is the wrongdoer. Sure, many lobbyists are slimy and aggressive. (Others, in my experience, can be helpful and informative, as long as you understand that they represent only one side of an argument.) But no one forces any legislator or staffer to accept lunches, trips, or favors from a lobbyist. And the reason not to do that is that the legislator risks surrendering some of her power, which is a public trust, to these private interests.

I’ll have more to say on specific proposals for reform in a day or two (hint: the best way to prevent these scandals is to put a watchdog on every member of Congress, in the form of an adequately funded challenger), but I just want to get this plea in immediately, to avoid the language that reinforces the idea that congressional leaders are helpless pawns of malevolent lobbyists.

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Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 9, 2006 | Permalink


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no democrat worth his or her salt will discuss any aspect of the abramoff affair without noting that black box voting is also an issue that stems from the same culture of corruption. they can pass every reform under the sun, but if the outcomes of elections can be rigged it is all for naught.

Posted by: chris from boca | Jan 9, 2006 2:35:46 PM

A good suggestion, but the Democrats won't change their tune. No one really wants to change the system -- they just want to blame its bad effects on the other party.

Posted by: Carey | Jan 10, 2006 3:06:10 PM

But no one forces any legislator or staffer to accept lunches, trips, or favors from a lobbyist. Mark Schmitt

I know Mark's post was hurried, but it seems to me that this statement reinforces the idea that "lobbyist scandal" explains the headlines.

We Democrats view the "State" as an ally in the people's -- the three middle quintiles -- struggle against the 1-5% wealthy elites and their 15-19% symbol analyst servants, enablers, defenders, and sycophants.

Republican Party politicians have captured the State and don't intend to let it go. Their actions -- the K-Street money project; holding votes open to pass a drug plan solely to deny Democrats an anti-Bush campaign issue; adding special interest plums in secret conferences; awarding expensive earmarks to loyal sons -- have one goal in mind, retention of power.

How do we Democrats reawaken the people to the idea that the wealthy elites don't have their interests at heart and that the Republican Party has sold the State to that elite?

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Jan 10, 2006 3:38:07 PM

A quick idea I hope warrants further digging.

I think the whole GOP structure of passing a tax cut bill every year, with expiring tax cuts, is part of the same corrupt culture in which those in power collude with those willing to buy inflewence.

Why else would we rewrite the tax law every year? Why else would most of the tax cuts passed since Y2K have a build-in expiration date?

And why else would we have shifted gears, from passing a couple of significant tax bills per DECADE in times gone by, to revisiting the subject every year, when the GOP got control of all three branches of govt? Shouldn't the GOP have tried to pass the once and for-all serious reforms while they had the majorities required, rather than hashing through a series of ill-conceived patches, if they were doing this as a matter of ideology or of policy?

Posted by: TwentyFirstCentury | Jan 11, 2006 12:44:25 AM

Yeah. This was the old Rostenkowski gambit. Every so often he'd announce a tax reform plan and wait for the lobbyists to get in line to fill up his campaign chest or, as it was known under the old House rules since he never had to spend any of it on a serious election contest and he could take it with him when he left, his "retirement fund."

The Republicans have gone him one better making tax rewards and punishments with their associated contributions to worthy pols and continuous employment of well positioned lobbyists a year round thing.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Jan 11, 2006 10:06:41 AM

We need tax reforms .. I work hard and pay too much to uncle sam

Posted by: mynewsbot | Jan 11, 2006 9:33:38 PM

Mark - I agree that the Democrats are making a message mistake by calling this a lobbying scandal. But isn't the solution campaign finance reform? Staffers and legislators don't need to accept lunches, trips, or favors, as you say, but they do need to raise millions to run a competitive campaign for the next election in the inflated marketplace of Congressional campaigns. If public rather than private funds were available to qualified candidates, the temptation to accept money from the likes of Abramoff would fade considerably.

Posted by: Galen Nelson | Jan 12, 2006 11:32:16 PM

But no one forces any legislator or staffer to accept lunches, trips, or favors from a lobbyist. Excellent point!!

Posted by: Techwreck | Jan 17, 2006 12:20:31 PM

And did you see how WaPo came out swinging?

"[Lawmakers] need to restrain themselves . . . they should remember that it's not just the behavior of lobbyists that's a problem." Washington Post Editorial 1/20/2006

Posted by: Ellen 1910 | Jan 20, 2006 2:24:51 AM

I have to disagree: this is both a betrayal of the public trust AND a lobbying scandal.

Yes, Abramoff had no power by himself. But when he cheated the Coushatta tribe to line his own pockets, that was simple lobbying misconduct. He could still have stolen all that money from his clients without any Congressman behaving unethically. Thus lobbying as well as congressional reform is needed to prevent a repeat of Abramoff's crimes.

Posted by: Daniel R. Baker | Jan 21, 2006 11:41:51 PM


...though assuredly not the Grandmother, is 'reform'. It was the first frame, in a political context, of which I became conscious. The first use by the CATO-nicks was: tort 'reform',which meant keeping people out of the courts with their pesky complaints of death and injury at the hands of corporations and powerful interest groups. Since then I've heard of dozens of proposed 'reforms' designed to benefit powerful and rich people at the expense of everyone else. Progressives should drop 'reform' altogether, unless we mean true reform, which means cleaning up corruption.

Posted by: Susan McCabe | Feb 13, 2006 9:09:36 PM

Well said:"A good suggestion, but the Democrats won't change their tune. No one really wants to change the system -- they just want to blame its bad effects on the other party." Could not agree more.

Posted by: Alex | Apr 17, 2006 4:46:35 PM

Sales of new single-family home is down, but there are strong signs of stabilization and a strengthening market ahead, according to figures released by the U.S. Commerce Dept. "The new-home sales report by the government is in line with what builders have been reporting, that the market correction in terms of sales is largely behind us and the current market is stabilizing

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