I have to admit that in certain situations, I hate telling people what I do. (Not to be confused with telling people what to do, which I love.)
When I was a hill staffer, I felt there was something noble conveyed in my public servitude (except at my 20th high school reunion when I got blamed for high gas prices). When I worked for non-profits, there was a sense of do-gooder-ness that mostly drew admiration. By contrast, saying, “I’m a lobbyist” yields a look of suspicious disdain. Thanks, Jack Abramoff, for making the American public generally find corrupt the one profession that’s protected by the first amendment. (I have a lobbyist friend who likes to call himself Chief Redress Officer, a job title that’s definitely in contention for my next printing of business cards.)
Yes, I lobby, but I also do much more. I develop and implement legislative strategies primarily on issues pertaining to energy and the environment for a small consulting firm of which I am a partner and part owner. I know, I know, it doesn’t have the ring of “I’m a thoracic surgeon” or “I’m a Broadway actress.” But I really enjoy the work I do. Together with my partners, we create meaningful progress to make the world a better place.
Regardless of the personal satisfaction I get in this job which is the marriage of all my skill sets, let’s talk about the L word. People think we are corrupt, have three-martini lunches on a regular basis and are to blame for the [fill-in-the-blank] crisis. I’m surprised that as part of the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act, Congress didn’t also require registered lobbyists don a scarlet L on our lapels to warn elected officials and their staff that someone of potentially ill professional repute is in the vicinity.
Some of the restrictions contained in the ethics law I understand. No more paying for luxurious golf vacations in Scotland? Makes sense. The cooling off period for senior staff before they can lobby a former boss is logical. The gift ban? Thank you. I have a hard enough time identifying gifts for those who are near and dear to me. I don’t need the added pressure of buying gifts for people I only have a professional affiliation with. But the meal ban? Come on. When I was a hill staffer, if I was influenced because someone had bought me a $25 lunch, that wouldn’t have said a whole lot about my character or integrity. On the rare days when I had time to take lunch away from my desk, I ate with a friend I hadn’t seen recently or someone I was working with to advance my boss’s legislative agenda so we could strategize over lunch. (I used to call that kind of lunch killing two birds with one stone until someone reminded me that the Environment and Public Works Committee staff shouldn’t condone the killing of birds, unless those birds are hunting fodder.)
What strikes me as the most absurd aspect of this law is that while I can’t offer a staffer a ticket to a baseball game or buy them a lunch, I can contribute money to a Member of Congress’s political campaign. In fact, as a lobbyist, I’m expected to make such contributions. Let’s think for one moment about which of these actions (providing meals vs providing contributions) really wields more influence.
The most upsetting part of the lobbying profession being dragged down the scale to somewhere between prostitute and drug dealer is that every time Obama says the word “lobbyist” he almost seems to spit the word out. Yes there were (and probably still are) corrupt lobbyists just like there are bad apples in any profession. But to blame lobbyists for the current broken state of our country is ridiculous. After all, in the end, we can make the case to redress grievances but we aren’t the ones who vote on legislative measures or sign them into law.