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The Trouble With Lobbyist-Bashing

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Trouble With Lobbyist-Bashing"

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To return to yesterday’s discussion the reason the Obama administration is finding itself needing to wriggle out of some of its anti-lobbyist rhetoric is that their rhetoric never made sense. “K Street” is a synedoche for the influence peddling business, but it’s also an actual street and one you get east of 9th Street it takes on a much humbler character. Indeed, I live on a stretch of K Street primarily known for its vacant lots. At the same time, many pernicious interest groups have their offices on L Street or M Street or, indeed, somewhere in Virginia. You wouldn’t want to actually crack down on K Street, leaving out all the bad people on other streets but hitting the new Busboys & Poets coffee shop.

Similarly, when people hear about “lobbyists” what they’re thinking of is corporate malefactors. But a registered lobbyist is an occupational category with a precise meaning—it’s a license to deal with congressional staff in a certain way—that matches up pretty imperfectly with the rhetorical force of the term. Someone—or maybe more than one person—at the Center for American Progress is a lobbyist. When we lobby, it’s on behalf of our policy research. Just like when Raytheon lobbies it’s on behalf of their desire to make money by selling military equipment. Unions have lobbyists and environmental groups have lobbyists. And, of course, big business has lobbyists. But big business also employs plenty of people who don’t fit the legal definition of “lobbying” to advance their agenda. For example, here’s David Corn writing about the Center for Consumer Freedom:

No wonder some within industry are raising a fuss about Sunstein’s regulatory beliefs. They have turned to a mega-lobbyist named Richard Berman, whose firm, Berman & Company, runs a variety of front groups for big business. In one famous episode from the mid-’90s, Berman established a group called the Guest Choice Network to fight the creation of nonsmoking sections in restaurants. The group was quietly funded by Philip Morris.

The Berman-run Center for Consumer Freedom claims its mission is “promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choice,” but its real purpose is to push back against activist groups and public interest nonprofits. A section of its website called “If Bacon Is Wrong, We Don’t Want To Be Lite” defends bacon, ice cream, and hot dogs, saying, “There’s no real scientific consensus on diet and cancer.” An op-ed written by Berman and posted on CCF’s site dismisses a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that links soft drinks to type 2 diabetes, calling it “the latest phony food scare.” CCF attributes the American obesity epidemic not to fast and junk food, but to “sitting disease.” CCF’s latest target is Sunstein, who it claims has a “secret aim to push a radical animal-rights agenda in the White House.” The assertion appears similar to the usual alarmism that Berman peddles to further industry interests, but Sunstein has indeed made provocative statements on the issue of animal rights.

Berman is a lobbyist. And one of the things Berman does is fund a non-profit front group to defend his clients from criticism coming from public health advocates. But the guys who work at his front group aren’t “lobbyists.” And yet, I’d much rather have a registered lobbyist for public health organizations serve in a public health regulation job than have a non-lobbyist with a CCF background. Similarly, better to have a lobbyist for environmental groups working at the EPA than to have a non-lobbyist from the emissions-loving, corporate funded Competitive Enterprise Institute.

UPDATE: The article I credited to David Corn was actually written by Jonathan Stein. I apologize for the error.

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