I’m always a bit skeptical of legal reforms to the lobbying industry. Not that such endeavors are a bad thing exactly, but any restrictions airtight enough to really be effective are likely to be nearly totalitarian in their draconianness. In a free society people have a right to hire people to help push their agenda, and in a free society people have a right to vast and diffuse networks of social and professional contacts. What’s really needed is a revival of shame. Lawrence Lessig has an interesting PowerPoint where he digs up a remark from about 30 years ago where the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is telling some younger operative that he can’t organize a fundraiser with defense contractors because it “wouldn’t be proper” to be raising funds from the companies he has jurisdiction over.
We could live in a world where if you show up at a party full of not-so-close friends, strangers, and casual acquaintances and tell them you’ve gone to work for Evil Company X to help them bilk the taxpayers that people start giving you dirty looks and asking the host why you were invited. That sounds mild, but in reality I think these things are important to people. Money matters, of course, but so does prestige and esteem. What happens in Washington now is that if you go cash in, you lose only a little prestige and esteem. What needs to happen is that you lose a lot, and that because everyone knows you’ll lose a lot if you do it only really unusually greedy people want to do it which further stigmatizes the endeavor. So in that spirit, if I ever run into any of these people I plan to give them some dirty looks:
BP, which has garnered the bulk of public attention and contempt for the spill, has assembled a formidable team of Democrats for its Washington lobbying, legal and public-relations offensive. There is Tony Podesta, who heads one of the District’s leading lobbying firms; legal adviser Jamie Gorelick, a top Justice Department official in the Clinton administration now at the law firm WilmerHale; Hilary Rosen, a former recording-industry lobbyist who heads the Washington office of the Brunswick Group, a public-relations consultancy; and Michael S. Berman of the Duberstein Group, who was a longtime aide to former vice president Walter F. Mondale before becoming a lobbyist. [...]
But BP has not ignored the GOP, which has been a crucial ally on Capitol Hill in tamping down calls from liberal Democrats to permanently ban drilling or lift liability limits for the company. The London-based energy conglomerate recently hired Anne Womack-Kolton, who was a press secretary for former vice president Richard B. Cheney, to head its U.S. public-relations shop. And Brunswick has contracted GOP consultants Alex Castellanos and John Feehery to work on behalf of BP, sources familiar with the arrangements said.
One good thing about the social sanction path is that it allows one to draw a distinction between good and bad lobbying. Formally speaking, a lobbyist for windmills is just as much a lobbyist as a lobbyist for big oil. But while the Wind Lobby is not pure as the driven snow, it’s hardly black as an oil slick wrecking the ocean. And even within the realm of profit-seeking corporations, cable companies looking to bilk customers out of money are still a lot less malign than firms involved in the destruction of the planet. Clearly you’re never going to entrench common sense distinctions like that in a law, but they could be entrenched in social practice.