Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Truth About Lobbyists

Marcia Angell doesn’t seem too fond of lobbyists, mentioning the pharmaceutical industry’s presence in the lobbying world of D.C. and the conflict of interest that exists when lobbyists are related to members of Congress. Jonathan Rauch coined the term “demosclerosis” in his 1995 book Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of the American Government to describe the gridlock that lobbyists cause in D.C., likening them to a hardening of the Nation’s political arteries as bills can’t get through with so many interest groups vying for attention from members of the House and Senate. Granted, by the Nownes count there are 85,000 registered lobbyists in D.C. alone, and an estimated 1.2 million nationally, but this really doesn’t tell the whole story.

Here’s the thing about lobbyists: we tend to see them as the source of evil in American politics, but they serve an important role in advocacy and policy-making. In fact, the majority of lobbyists are in the nonprofit sector and don’t see as large of a financial return for themselves or the organizations they represent, as Angell would have us believe. A lot of the representation for and communication with the American public can be attributed to lobbyists—sure, in the case of drug companies there may be some misrepresentation of information happening, but for every big pharma lobbyist, there’s one pushing back from the other side. Because of the connection they provide between the public and government, they are a source of great mobilization, which leads to public opinion and increasing public involvement and action. This ultimately has a hand in effecting policy, which often times works in the public’s benefit. For example, lobbyists were a big motivator in the passing of the Affordable Care Act when Blue Cross Blue Shield jacked premiums up by 39% after the bill seemed dead, helping to channel American’s distress to politicians.

I think Angell presented lobbyists rather poorly, making it seem like the pharmaceutical industry dominates lobbying and has a direct pipeline to politicians, a grand oversimplification of who lobbyists represent. Everyone is represented by a lobbyist—NYU even has a few! So, yes, big drug companies have lobbyists that they send to D.C. to push their products, but just about every other industry does, too. Without lobbyists, we’d lose a connection between the public and the government.

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