Congress Should Look At Effects Of Lobbying
Over the past few decades, a disturbing trend has been taking place in Washington, one that threatens the health and viability of our democratic republic. While the concept of lobbying federal legislators is not new to the United States, the scope and significance of the lobbying industry has grown exponentially over the past 30 or so years. This exponential growth in scope and significance has had an undeniable influence over the way Congress functions, as a whole, and has altered the way our representative government functions. Before we allow this trend to continue unfettered, it is imperative that we debate the concept of lobbying and political influence over legislation in order to determine where the influence behind our legislative body ought to be derived.
Currently, the act of lobbying is protected by law under a small portion of the First Amendment known as the “petition clause.” The text states: “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting … the right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” A quick glance at the text ought to give us pause and raise certain questions about how our right to petition the government as citizens has been extended to for-profit businesses in the form of lobbying. We also need to determine if this modern interpretation is congruent with the original intent of the First Amendment, as penned by James Madison in 1789.
The most important rights the “petition clause” grants citizens are the right to speak out against perceived injustices and the power to make attempts to change these perceived injustices. Certainly the clause grants us, as citizens, the right to voice complaints with our elected representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives, the right to file suit, the right to gather in protest or to picket, the right to form letter-writing campaigns, the right to support referenda, and the right to gather signatures for ballot initiatives. These are terribly important rights that have been upheld by the Supreme Court on numerous occasions. But, do these rights extend to for-profit businesses in the form of financial lobbying? So far, the Supreme Court has said “yes.” And, since they do, what effects do they have on our legislative process? The answers to the latter question are crucial as we try to determine where political clout over the legislative process ought to come from. In accordance with the original intent of the First Amendment, should this influence lie with citizens and groups of citizen regardless of financial stature, or with for-profit businesses, which preeminently have the financial advantage?
First, let’s look at the effects of lobbying on the legislative process. We the people elect politicians with the purpose of having them represent us in the federal legislative process. We are their constituents, and their job is to make laws that represent us, in individual states and districts. If we take this understanding, they are beholden to us, as voters. Any law they write, and or vote on should, in theory, be in our best interests and reflect our will as constituents in given districts and states. Financial lobbying alters this schema dramatically. Businesses and special interest groups hire lobbyists or firms of lobbyists to wield influence over the politicians that we, as citizens, elect to represent us. The major alteration brought about by lobbying is the shift of influence away from voters and towards businesses. These businesses have one main goal, and that is to expand their profits. Often, these for-profit goals do not represent the will of the voting populace, who has other things to consider aside from profit. Voters aren’t really concerned with profit. They are concerned about issues that affect them and their lives; job creation, job retention, having quality schools, having a safe and clean neighborhood in which to raise their children, crime, parks, etc. These things don’t always conflict with a business’s desire for profit, but often, they do. At that point where such a conflict of interest lies, our legislators are left with a difficult decision: to either represent the will of the voting constituents, or represent the will of the business interests that they have been lobbied by. We all know who usually wins that debate.
Surely, I’ve asked more questions than I have answered. This is just a place to begin exploring the issue of lobbying. A discussion that I feel has been put on the back burner of American politics for far too long.