Unexpected news flash: those lobbyists are citizens too
Written by Michael Lewis on December 3, 2014
Lobbyists have rights too.
That’s hard to say with a straight face if you watch governments here.
Some very visible lobbyists and their cousins the political fundraisers have for so long had undue and sometimes unhealthy roles in local government decisions that it’s hard not to look askance at them.
Still, they’re citizens along with the rest of us, and should enjoy the same rights – not more rights, as lobbyists sometimes assume when pushing for contracts for their clients, but certainly not fewer rights either.
We’d never pass legislation that restricts the right of any profession to enjoy the civic roles and duties of any ordinary citizen. We’d never specify, for example, that airline pilots or plumbers or accountants couldn’t be named to this or that public office.
Why, then, do we allow such an unreasonable restriction in the case of lobbyists?
We do, you know. This week the Miami-Dade County Commission was set with the best of intentions to vote to bar lobbyists from serving on the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority.
The county action would merely codify a requirement that the state legislature set this year as a shirttail to a broad package of items lumped together and branded “governmental ethics.”
On page 11 of that package, legislators specified that in the case of an expressway authority, lobbyists “may not be appointed or serve as a member.” The action was taken as a result of scandal surrounding Orlando’s expressway authority.
Still, because some lobbyists appointed to positions have crossed the line by serving their clients and not the public is no reason to bar the whole profession from a class of public office, any more than we should bar all lawyers from serving if one is unethical.
It would be far better to ban public service by persons of any profession who have conflicts of interest between their work and the specific civic post. That makes sense.
And, in fact, the state legislation does bar from expressway authority service anyone with such conflicts of interest. So why also ban a specific profession because some of its members will have interest conflicts that the law already outlaws?
It might be because the lobbyists the public most hears about are linked to unethical deeds, just as the financial advisor we know best is Bernie Madoff, not the hundreds of decent and honest practitioners.
For sure not all lobbyists would have conflicts of interest in serving on the expressway authority. Think of those who, for example, serve colleges or charities or sports teams or the medical profession or…? Any relation to highways or toll rates in those cases would be purely coincidental.
It would make more sense to bar all engineers and contractors from an expressway authority post than to bar all lobbyists. But the legislation rightly limits barriers to service in those cases to those with true conflicts of interest.
In the case of lobbyists, however, we throw the book at them, assuming that every one of them would have a conflict. That’s guilt by class, not by action. And that’s just plain wrong.
We would expect those who appoint our 13 expressway authority members to be wary of conflicts. By law, the governor names five. the county commission names seven and the 13th is the local head of the Florida Department of Transportation.
The governor and the county commission ought to have the right to chose the best person, even if that person lobbies for doctors or accountants or a local charitable group.
That’s not a recommendation that we choose lobbyists, just a plea to treat them with the same rights as a doctor or an accountant or a charitable group’s head. Don’t exclude them all because a few are terrible choices.
Democracy is best served when doors are open to all, not closed to any group for any specious reason.
Despite what we’ve written about some who lobby for causes with which we have taken issue, lobbyists do not all skulk around in dark alleys. When they are advocating for a cause or an issue, they can play a legitimate role in society and in government.
Let’s not make them pariahs.
And, no, we were not lobbied to make the case for lobbyists. What’s right is right.
Lobbyists have the same rights as any one of us – not a drop more, but certainly not any less.