It was the night of Super Tuesday, and there was Barack Obama in full-throated splendor, saying that teachers, cooks and kitchen workers were with him in his effort to keep a particularly threatening group from running Washington anymore.
And who are these baddies he was referring to? Why, they are lobbyists, which is to say, they are people working on behalf of these teachers, cooks and kitchen workers, of citizens concerned about all sorts of issues from civil liberties to gun control, of businesses, unions and advocacy groups.
During my nine years writing and editing in Washington, I got to know a number of them, such as one good friend of the family, a woman who was wonderfully well-read and educated, as highly moral as anyone I’ve happened across, someone truly dedicated to a better America. A corrupter of the political process? Not on your life.
The contrary fact of the matter is that she and hundreds like her are crucial in educating members of Congress on a whole host of issues they know very little about. Get rid of them, and even more than they do now, our political leaders would walk around blindly, sometimes falling off cliffs and taking the common good with them.
Obama knows as much, or at least seemed to in the past. When he was in the Illinois Senate, he negotiated with unions, nonprofit groups and the insurance industry in helping to fashion a health-care program that ultimately passed, according to a Boston Globe story. It seems he suffered criticism because he was responsive to some of the concerns of industry lobbyists. But should he have ignored them, assuming there was nothing he could learn from their arguments, that they were hopelessly base and that their objectives could not possibly coincide with the public welfare? I don’t think so.
Lobbyists do constitute a significant force in Washington, but it’s pure folderol to say, as Obama does, that they are in charge of the city. Not only do they do battle among themselves, offsetting each other’s influence, but there’s something that matters a great deal more in keeping the system from ever being the lobbyists’ plaything. It’s that on the biggest issues, their opinions come in second with legislators to the opinions of constituents, of voters in states and congressional districts, the people who more than anyone else determine whether these legislators will continue in office.
When Obama makes it sound as if campaign contributions from varied special interests sway the course of empire, he is unsustainably insulting colleagues who, in addition to heeding the home folks, will also sometimes heed their own consciences. It is true, of course, that some politicians do sell their souls, occasionally going to jail for it. It is true that some lobbyists are crooks, just as some people in all walks of life are crooks. And it is true that all kinds of deeds are done in D.C. at great public expense and misfortune because of lobbyists. But what we mainly have are Americans exercising their right to petition their government and of legislators lending them an ear. As for the excesses, there are answers, one of which is contrary to everything Obama stands for.
It is critical, first off, that who gives what to whom should continue to be transparent, and next, that Congress should eliminate the secrecy with which certain kinds of special-interest bills are passed, thereby affording vital information to voters who can throw any rascals out.
I am sure that Obama has no problem with these solutions, but then we come to what many students of this issue have suggested — that if you get the central government out of every possible nook and cranny of American life and limit its scope in accordance with the founding principles, you won’t have so many lobbyists racing about trying to safeguard their clients from calamity or maybe trying to get a piece of this great, big federal pie for them.
Yet, in almost every way and just about every day, Obama wants to expand government. You don’t believe me? Look at his record and listen to those speeches.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)
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