Alex Massie

If you build it, they will need to come (and lobby)

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Barack Obama - like John Edwards before him - and, I dare say, the majority of Democrats hates (or pretends to hate lobbyists). To listen to Democrats talk you might be think that lobbyists are (with nasty trade with foreigners of course) the greatest threat to the future well-being of the United States.

And indeed there is something discreditable about the lobbying explosion in Washington in recent years. Still, however regrettable elements of the lobbying industry may be it seems pretty clear to me that removing or curtailing the right to petition your government would be a pretty severe infringement upon a pretty fundamental liberty.

Furthermore, to the extent lobbying does in fact corrupt the business of government it's largely because, well, the business of government has become lobbying. Or rather, as this excellent article by Jeffrey Birnbaum in the Washington Post magazine makes clear, it's now all-but impossible to run a major business without representation in Washington. Complaints about lobbying are really complaints about the government itself. It may, mind you, be some time before Mr Obama or other Democrats recognise this.

Birnbaum relates - in an often very funny article - how the travel and tourism industries tried to get the federal government to pay for a $200m advertising campaign designed to lure foreign tourists to the United States*. The point is not that the tourism industry is especially venal, rather that it is typical...

The explosion in the size of K Street, the locus of the lobbying industry, is an extension of the growth and reach of government. The ballooning federal budget has its tentacles in every aspect of American life and commerce. No serious industry or interest can function without monitoring, and at least trying to manipulate, Washington's decision makers. The penalty for ignoring the federal government can run into the billions of dollars. Just ask Microsoft. The software giant was hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department in the late 1990s and, in 2001, agreed to alter the way it packaged its computer operating system. Before then, it had mostly ignored the nation's capital.

Bad mistake. Chastened by its defeat, Microsoft has built a powerhouse presence in Washington, as have scores of other companies and industries. Lobbyists argue that it's a relatively cheap investment. The Carmen Group, a mid-size lobbying firm, regularly compares its clients' costs with the benefits it says they receive from lobbying. In its latest internal assessment, Carmen said it collected $15 million in fees from about 70 clients and delivered $1.5 billion in assistance -- measured both in benefits received and in burdens avoided -- a return ratio of roughly 1 to 100. Most clients still part with their lobbying dollars grudgingly. But they do part with them, which is why new buildings are going up all the time to accommodate the industry's growth. Want a former senator to guarantee a meeting with a current senator? No problem. Half the senators who leave Congress for the private sector register to lobby. Need to know the history of a tax law and whom best to ask to change it? Easy. At least half a dozen consulting firms are composed of nothing but former congressional tax aides and Treasury Department officials who know as much as, and probably more than, the current people inside.

And why wouldn't ex-lawmakers and aides gravitate to K Street? Lobbying jobs pay at least twice and sometimes three times government salaries. Serving in government is now viewed by many on Capitol Hill as a steppingstone to a lucrative career in bending government to the whims of paying clients. In many ways, lobbying now mimics the government it targets. It has become a bureaucracy, with its own language, its own peculiar ways of doing business and, most important, its own instinct to survive.

Indeed, the last thing any lobbyist wants is to win everything his or her client is seeking. That would mean an end to a retainer, the closing of the feedbag. Success for a lobbyist is not outright victory but, rather, just enough progress to justify the creation of an elaborate and well-funded lobbying apparatus. Even outright failure can underscore the need to lobby harder.

Lobbying is Washington's version of a perpetual motion machine. Once it gets revved up, it rarely stops running. In fact, it tends to grow.

*I blogged about this last month: the travel industry does actually have a point when it complains that onerous visa regulations and the like are putting some folk off visiting the United States. Doesn't mean I think the feds should pay for it, of course.

[Minor disclosure: I count a number of current or former K Street lobbyists as friends.]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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