In nearly every age of American politics, lobbying has been an activity filled with positive and negative dynamics—and a lot of results. Some results are good: clear economic policies, an excellent business environment, tangible outcomes for state and local governments, and benefits to taxpayers. Sometimes the results prop up businesses, provide business or labor advantages, and line the pockets of union officials, executives, and the lobbyists themselves as they provide food and drink and pay travel costs of elected officials and, sad to say, provide financial kickbacks for their legislative work.
Bad examples of lobbying are frequent in Springfield and in Washington, D.C. In 2005, one of the most spectacular examples was the lobbying efforts of Jack Abramoff as he worked with members of Congress, including 12 senators and representatives (such as Robert Ney of Ohio and Tom DeLay of Texas) to obtain favorable treatment for his clients (primarily Native American casinos).
As The Washington Post reported back in January, the once- powerful lobbyist pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials in a deal that requires him to provide evidence about members of Congress. “The plea deal could have enormous legal and political consequences for the lawmakers on whom Abramoff lavished luxury trips, skybox fundraisers, campaign contributions, jobs for their spouses, and meals at Signatures, the lobbyist’s upscale restaurant,” the story says.
There’s no question in the political arena that elected officials are the financial decision-makers. They have their hands on the switch when it comes to policy and practice, and the appropriation of money to carry out the work. Since there’s only so much money to be allocated for legislative initiatives and budget items, lobbyists from all sides of the political and economic spectrum advocate for particular causes and interests.
This practice is nothing new in political life. When I’ve been in Springfield during legislative sessions, lobbyists have been lined up at the chamber doors to get the attention of representatives or senators so they could talk about industry priorities or social concerns. There were many office visits and meal meetings with legislators to talk over matters important to the group being represented. When I served on the board of the Greater Peoria Mass Transit District, the American Public Transportation Association held an annual meeting which included time for participants to have meetings with elected officials. Those of us from downstate Illinois together went to see a number of elected officials press the case for the funding of mass transit.
So, yes, I’ve been a lobbyist, too, of a sort, and there’s nothing wrong with advocacy. But I didn’t try to work out a special arrangement with the elected official, or pass along any money to an election campaign, or promise a job in the industry to a family member in exchange for a vote to benefit a particular project. Most elected officials don’t take the bait. We can be proud particularly of the elected officials from central Illinois for their honesty, and I want to single out Rep. Ray LaHood for his tremendous integrity in office.
But there’s always a lure of money, influence, election support, or personal benefit that can bring out the worst in an elected official or staff member. For example, Randy Duke Cunningham, a member of the House of Representatives from San Diego, took at least $2.4 million in bribes for private jets for resort getaways, a California mansion, a Rolls-Royce, and an opulent lifestyle. His practice was sheer selfishness. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Cunningham also was the leading voice on its Defense Subcommittee. He was able to insert multimillion-dollar favors into the Pentagon and other budgets. Some bribes were really brazen. He scribbled this bribe menu on his Congressional note pad: “Want a $16 million contract? The cost is a boat (B.T. for short) worth $140,000, and another $50,000 for each additional million dollars in contracts.”
Fortunately, it’s not unethical to lobby or advocate for causes and needs, as long as personal benefit or temptation doesn’t taint the process. That’s part of the democratic process. But it is unethical to manipulate votes by pushing personal benefits or by arm-twisting for one’s own wants and needs. It’s unethical to take a “whatever works” approach in the democratic process. We need to be clear, fair, and open with our opinion and approach. We can’t try to “buy” support, whether in favors, goods, or cold, hard cash. Ethics in a democracy demands public accountability. We should require nothing less when it comes time for elected officials to vote. IBI