Banning former members of Congress from lobbying won’t fix what’s wrong with lobbying
DeLancey is the co-founder and CEO of Lobbyists 4 Good, a crowdfunding platform that enables individuals to hire lobbyists.
Twitter was abuzz last month when a group of unlikely allies – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Chip Roy, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sen. Brian Schatz – promised to work together on legislation that would ban former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists.
While their intentions are obviously good, and they should be applauded for their efforts, banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists will do little to achieve their goal of "draining the swamp" and reducing corporate influence on politics.
Overlooking, for a minute, the fact that a lifetime ban on lobbying has almost no chance of being passed, any such law would almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The last part, the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances, is the reason why lobbying is legal. It gives every U.S. citizen, corporation, association, nonprofit, and even local and state governments the right to petition Congress.
Even if Congress could pass a lifetime ban, and was found constitutional, such a law would do little to prevent former members of Congress from influencing their one-time colleagues. The rules governing lobbying registration have so many loopholes that former members of Congress can become "policy advisers" or "senior council" for lobbying firms without actually having to register as lobbyists.
Without closing these loopholes, a lifetime lobbying ban would just push lobbying further into the shadows, something that has been gradually occurring for the past 15 years. Members of Congress would still be influencing Congress, but the issues they are working on, and who is paying them to do so, would be hidden from the public.
Congress would also need to make sure the laws governing registration are actually enforced. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that the Department of Justice only has one part-time attorney assigned to the office that enforces the Lobbying Disclosure Act, leaving a staggering 59 percent of cases uninvestigated.
Additionally, the Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz, Roy and Schatz proposal would do nothing to close the revolving door used by congressional staffers, which is arguably more important than the revolving door of former lawmakers.
While former members of Congress give lobbying firms credibility with clients, congressional staffers are arguably just as influential when they become lobbyists. Their knowledge of the issues, their experience writing legislation,and their relationships with other congressional staffers give them a unique skillset when they leave public service for the private sector.
So, even if the legislation passed, and was held up by the courts, and the loopholes were closed, and the laws governing registration were enforced, the revolving door between Congress and K Street would still be open and the swamp would remain pretty swampy.
Despite all of this, what worries me the most about the lifetime ban is the unintended consequences it would have on organizations and nonprofits that help many people here in the United States and around the world.
Most people wrongfully assume that all lobbyists work for nefarious corporate entities. While this may seem like the case based on news coverage and social media posts, it is simply not true. There are many public interest groups and nonprofits that hire former members of Congress to lobby for them at heavily discounted rates on important issues.
Take, for example, Phil English, who lost his re-election bid in 2008 after fourteen years in the House of Representatives. He joined one of D.C.'s largest lobbying firms, Arent Fox LLP, in 2009 and started lobbying Congress after his one-year ban ended.
While he has corporate clients in the pharmaceutical and energy sectors, he also has lobbied for several research colleges and universities in Pennsylvania, a leading U.S. Catholic charity and one of the top children's hospitals in the nation. While I do not know him, and cannot speak to his work, banning him from lobbying for these nonprofit organizations would negatively impact their ability to achieve their mission.
We need to stop focusing so much on lobbying bans and regulations that would do little to fix our broken system. The only solution to this problem is to fight fire with fire.
There is an old adage in D.C. that states, "If you are not at the table, then you are on the menu," and that is why the public is constantly outgunned, outmatched and beaten in the political arena by corporate America.
Almost every large corporation in America hires lobbyists to advocate for its cause and almost every industry has an association working to make sure its interests are heard on Capitol Hill. Public interest groups and nonprofits do not prioritize engaging with lawmakers and do not see the value in hiring lobbyists, creating a one-sided fight on Capitol Hill.
It is about time the public sector takes a page from the private sector and starts getting more influencers working on our side to make sure our voice is heard. We need to have lobbyists working for us to counter the corporate lobbyists that flood the halls of Congress every day. It is the only way we will level the playing field and get Congress listening to us again.