In terms of popularity, lobbyists rank right up there with journalists, attorneys, and politicians. The word “lobbying” itself is sometimes even used to describe unsavory, self-serving behavior. Like all stereotypes, however, this one is simplistic and lazy. Sure, unethical and selfish lobbyists exist, just like biased media and corrupt politicians do. But overall, lobbyists can serve an important role in our government, especially in Alaska where the state’s capital is inaccessible to so many citizens.
How can this be true? Here are two key roles lobbyists play.
Educator: Legislators must consider and vote on hundreds of pieces of legislation within a few short months. Many of these bills have far-reaching implications for one or more industry, business, or organization. In Alaska, our issues are especially complex. Think about it: legislators must learn enough to vote on issues as wide-ranging and technical as fisheries management, oil and gas tax policy, health care, energy and utilities, labor rules, fish and game management, subsistence, and more. It would be absurd to expect every legislator to be an expert on all these issues; it’s just impossible. So, how does one find needed information on important issues? And how is that done in an efficient way?
Enter the lobbyist. They represent clients who, in turn, represent the collective voices of many individual constituents. It is far more effective, not to mention manageable, to hear the view of an entire industry or interest group by talking to one or more lobbyists. Before critics howl about “special interests,” consider that good policy is informed by the people or industries it will impact; passing legislation without consulting impacted parties is a recipe for disaster. This is not to say legislators must vote the way a lobbyist would prefer, but they should vote with good information at hand. Lobbyists can provide their views on the pros and cons of legislation with the best lobbyists also bringing institutional knowledge to the table.
This role as an educator comes with one big caveat: a lobbyist is only as effective as he/she is trustworthy. Lobbyists who play cute or “hide the ball” by highlighting information that benefits only their clients quickly lose credibility. The most successful lobbyists present complete and accurate information about the implications of any policy, including presenting a fair representation of their opponents’ arguments.
Expert: Lobbyists are usually experts in their respective subject areas. Their entire job involves constant monitoring of legislation, rules and regulations, political realities, and, to some extent, public sentiment on a whole host of issues. Lobbyists are also masterful at developing and nurturing relationships with elected officials and policy makers, often over the course of years. Those relationships lead to trust, but only if the lobbyist has earned it. Most organizations do not have the time or money to keep tabs on the legislature 24/7/365 like lobbyists do. Even fewer can afford to keep someone close to the action in Juneau. Lobbyists provide timely oversight to organizations likely to be impacted by legislation and policy, but that cannot manage the day-to-day work of monitoring developments. This is not limited to big moneyed organizations, either; many lobbyists work for clients with relatively few resources.
Ultimately, lawmakers cast their own votes based on what they believe to be the best policy. We citizens should expect (or hope, anyway) that our elected representatives do so only after gathering and considering the facts on both sides of an issue, understanding the consequences, and listening to their constituents. In most cases, working with an ethical, trustworthy lobbyist can help elected officials better understand the issues they are being asked to decide.