Lobbies

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Lobbies have traditionally held a central place in the demonology of American politics, and to some extent their reputation for corruption and shady dealing is richly deserved. But it is also true that they represent an important constitutional right and, properly used, can be an effective force for good in the legislative process.

The image of the lobbies as a threat to good government is too firmly fixed in the popular imagination to be easily dispelled. Even if we discount much of that unsavory reputation as the product of a distant past, it is still difficult to avoid the notion that any organized effort to influence legislation is both insidious and inimical to the public interest.

But the fact is that lobbies are intrinsically neither good nor bad, and a strong case can be made that we would be distinctly poorer if they did not exist. Wherever one finds them, whether in France or Great Britain, in Scandinavia or the United States, they lie near the heart of the political process in every free state and, when placed under adequate controls, may well reflect the essence of representative democracy.

Certainly the Founding Fathers so believed, for they considered easy access to the institutions of government by all elements within the state to be a prime necessity and the hallmark of a free people. To make such access possible they provided in the First Amendment to the Constitution three specific rights—speech, association, and petition—that have protected lobbies ever since. Political pragmatists of the first order, they had no doubt that special-interest groups would seek to influence the future course of Congress and the state assemblies, if only because a national consensus would always prove elusive and because no free society could hope to achieve uniformity of interest among all its citizens.

“As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it,” James Madison wrote in The Federalist (No. 10), “different opinions will be formed”—on religion, on political theory and practice, and above all else on the uses and distribution of property. The inevitable result is the division of every society into factions: “a landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a monied interest, with many lesser interests … actuated by different sentiments and views.”

As Madison saw it, “the regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern Legislation. …” But like others in his generation, he felt that the constitutional system of checks and balances was sufficient to guard the public against abuses and to ensure that lawmaking would proceed in a disinterested, evenhanded way. There seemed no need for additional restraints.

What Madison and his colleagues could not anticipate was the phenomenal growth of government at, all levels in the twentieth century and the markedly more complex society it would serve. In the eighteenth century, when agents for the special interests were few in number and their methods were informal and direct, it was impossible to foresee the highly organized, heavily financed professional lobbies of our day, or even to conceive of the enormous power they would one day wield. But even a handful of statistics will show that special-interest groups and lobbies are now a dominant feature in American life: