Every Congress has a group of Members — almost exclusively freshmen — who take on the task of personally “reforming” Congress.
After all, we all “know” that Congress is irredeemably corrupt, indolent, and self-absorbed. Further, nothing good ever happens because of the corruption of the system itself and that corruption is led by the obvious culprit, much maligned by all sides, the swamp-dwellers — you know, lobbyists (boo, hiss).
This Congress’ incarnation of this tired canard is a measure being proffered by a pair of nine-figure-wealthy freshmen senators and an equally wealthy sophomore House sponsor who believe that former Members who lobby pose an existential threat to the Republic and must be banned. Their measure would ban all Members of Congress from the lobbying profession once they leave Congress.
Maybe they are sincere and just maybe they are strategically getting ahead of the other often used freshman “reformer” suggestion that the colossally wealthy should not be allowed to use their personal wealth to buy elections.
Whatever the reason, the senators have been in town ten minutes and have decided to attack the one group that can most help them “find the bathrooms” in an effort to show that oh-so-desirable “common man” touch (something that men who possess wealth equal to the GNP of Bolivia desperately need). After all, slapping lobbyists around has become America’s pastime and, considering the polling numbers for Congress generally, including a particularized attack on former Members can only add to the attraction of the effort.
Personally, I have been working in D.C. for twenty years, sometimes as a lobbyist, and I am sick of being called every name available by some bunch of new Members posing for holy pictures in their home districts and states. My complaint is not entirely borne of the personal insult involved. I actually make this complaint in the interests of the Republic because as the current Members attack former Members (often merely as an extension of their own need for self-flagellation) they harm the system.
Members (and former Members) have a calling for public service. They desire to lead and serve. They have expertise and capacity to shape the public discourse and help direct the nation. Every American has this privilege in a democracy and the 535 elected Members of Congress serve those needs and people. My desire to help the process is in no way diminished because I have left Congress and I believe that my knowledge and assistance to the process is valuable. Former Members have the same right as any other citizen to petition our government and to act on behalf of others petitioning — that is, lobbying.
More so unlike other lobbyists, former Members have the experience to be helpful in the process as well. Further, lobbyists make-up the overwhelming bulk of subject-matter experts on virtually every issue brought to Congress. Members require copious amounts of good information on an almost endless number of highly particularized issues. Lobbyists provide this information on demand. Former Members who lobby are a big part of that information pool upon which Congress relies.
These senators and the House sponsor here would largely remove that resource from Washington. Why, you ask? Can’t these former Members just stay and be available without lobbying? In short, the answer is “no.” This is because Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive cities in the country in which to live and even the wealthy need to earn a living. Client representation is that living. It works for former Generals (or “greybeards” as they like to be called), former judges, former bureaucrats, former ambassadors, and other former appointed officials who all lend their expertise and abilities to their former agencies. Their experience, capacity, and expertise are benefits for the system. This capacity should be accentuated (perhaps with good regulation) but not attacked and certainly not banned.
I am reminded of a similar campaign in the past which ran out of control and had a terrible result.
In January of 2006, Republican David Dreier at the direction of Speaker Denis Hastert offered a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives banning all former Members who lobby from the House Floor and most other areas of privilege accorded to those former Members. The measure passed overwhelmingly with fearful support from all quarters, 379-50-1. I say ‘fearful’ because however much a Member may have disagreed with that bill, this was an automatic “aye” because the “nay” would be too hard to explain.
The effort had been led by notables in the House in response to an unhinged campaign by Lou Dobbs (on CNN at the time) who daily attacked this rare and earned privilege. Dobbs railed each day while channeling Carrie Nation in his “outrage.” He always appeared, incredibly, with a select collection of Washington lobbyists complaining about their perceived professional disadvantage! The unbelievable irony of this was lost on the bewilderingly ill-informed Lou Dobbs as he unceasingly pounded the table for an end to this pernicious practice.
Eventually, the weak-kneed House decided to throw its best resource for mentoring, information, and bi-partisan fellowship out with Lou’s bathwater. The strange thing was that no one ever mentioned that lobbing on the House Floor was forbidden from time immemorial and was an unspoken but universally understood rule that was, to my knowledge, never transgressed. The punishment would be a permanent forfeiture of Floor privileges. There was not a single complaint of lobbying that I ever heard and I can say with great confidence that it almost never happened. But Lou and his lobbyist guests would not be denied and the House buckled.
What Lou Dobbs failed to grasp was that, as a former Member, if I could approach a current Member on the House Floor, I could approach her anywhere. I have the personal access that comes with acquaintanceship and that access was in no way hindered by the Floor ban.
All the ban did was to restrict all the good that was provided by having experienced former Members at-hand on the Floor. I and other former Members assisted, mentored and shared (with new Members particularly) experiences and mistakes, importantly helping the process often at a moment when the current Member needed some “bucking-up” most. There was a fair sized group of us that would often visit the Floor for a couple of hours at a time to visit, tell stories and lend advice when asked. No more.
I had to earn a living which became considered, per se, evil and worthy to be banned. I and almost every other former Member were consequently banned. Can we say that as a nation we are better for it? I’d be glad to debate that anywhere, any time.
Last and remarkably, Drier and Hastert never sought a ban on former Members donating to re-election campaigns. Neither do the current sponsors offering the current measure. Interesting.
Michael Patrick Flanagan represented the 5th District of Illinois in the historic 104th Congress. Prior to his Congressional Service, Michael was commissioned in the United States Army Field Artillery. Michael and his firm, Flanagan Consulting LLC, have represented both large and small corporations, organizations, and associations. In 2009, Michael entered public service again with the United States Department of State in Iraq as the Senior Rule of Law Advisor on the Maysan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Maysan, Iraq. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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