Opinion: Daily Journal

Battling Lobbyists’ Bad Rap

When the word “lobbyist” is mentioned, what comes to mind? For so many the answer is manipulation, scheming, and corruption. In Gallup’s 2013 survey of perceptions of honesty and ethical standards in various professions, only 6 percent of Americans believed that lobbyists were honest and had high ethical standards. In fact, lobbyists placed lower than car salesmen and members of Congress, two professions that are consistently mocked for want of a moral compass.

However, I contend that a lobbyist has significant value in the policymaking process, one that rarely involves car salesmen tactics or shady dealings with elected officials.

I spent the majority of the 2015 legislative session working alongside one of the many lobbyists prowling the faux-marble hallways of the North Carolina General Assembly. Having previously interned for a member of the Senate during 2014, I was familiar with the legislative process from the perspective of an elected member, but what about the other side?

Lobbying in this state is more extensive than many believe. The secretary of state’s office reports 733 registered private-sector lobbyists and 100 registered intergovernmental liaisons in 2015. Most lobbyists serve as the private sector’s check on government action, providing a balance between the interests of the legislature and those of the state’s businesses.

However, there are also lobbyists who work for clients other than corporations, such as the N.C. Parent Teacher Association and the N.C. Obstetrical and Gynecological Society. Organizations such as these are often nonprofits that do what individual citizens find more difficult, and that is to fund an effective voice at the General Assembly for the interests and well-being of our state’s taxpayers, employers, and charities.

Citizens are mostly familiar with the corporate side of lobbying. Many are unfamiliar with the role of a lobbyist as a direct liaison between citizens and their elected officials. During my time, I witnessed this firsthand, as lobbyists would routinely take groups of citizens organized by a client organization to personal meetings with legislators.

These meetings were made much easier through the work of a lobbyist. If a group of constituents visited a legislator’s office without the logistic and legal expertise of a liaison by their side, those citizens might not have been present at an appropriate time to meet with a member of our busy, part-time legislature. As a result, they would have no chance to make their voices heard. For some elected officials, lobbyists give citizens’ concerns a sense of expediency.

I observed a great example of lobbyists’ power as a mediator for the public during the legislative process. Many lawmakers had refused to support a bill based on preconceived attitudes and incorrect information. Lobbyists set up meetings among committee members, bill supporters, and small business owners in order to explain to lawmakers how this legislation would affect them and their constituencies.

Personal stories from the group resonated with members, and the rhetoric regarding the bill soon began to change. This group would not have been able to take part in such influential meetings had it not been for the lobbyist’s ability to bridge the gap between lawmakers and citizens.

The factor most critical to a lobbyist’s influence is the relationship he or she has with the members of the legislature. This is where most excel, as business gets done more quickly and effectively when a relationship already exists. Lobbyists have a business incentive to be polite and friendly with our elected officials. Most importantly, the secretary of state’s office publishes and enforces strict rules regarding registration and ethics that all lobbyists must abide by for fear of losing their jobs or facing criminal charges.

From my most recent experience at the General Assembly, I realized that lobbyists are hard-working, personable, and professional. I argue that we should thank North Carolina’s lobbyists for making sure our lawmakers are routinely influenced and educated by more than just each other.

Austin Pruitt is a Research Intern for the John Locke Foundation.