The media adores stories that bolster prevailing narratives about the virtuousness of “bipartisanship” and the nefariousness of money in politics. Last week, they got both when socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and conservative Ted Cruz displayed some populist synergy by promising to work on legislation that would ban former lawmakers from taking paid lobbyist positions.
With the “ambitious bipartisan effort,” these two “seemingly opposite legislators” found “common ground” in their disapproval of former members of Congress “wielding their influence in new careers as government lobbyists,” read one particularly insufferable piece.
Now, I don’t very much care for rent-seeking lobbyists, but I care even less for bipartisan attacks on the First Amendment, which have a long history of being as useless as they are unconstitutional.
Lobbying exists. And producing laws that prohibit one class of Americans from pursuing an entirely legitimate and constitutionally protected vocation merely because they’ve been in public office—despite the disreputable nature of both jobs—should be unconstitutional.
You don’t have to rake in the big bucks with the trial lawyers association to read the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
There’s no addendum in the founding document that says except for “bakers who refuse to design individual same-sex wedding cakes” or “those who give money anonymously” or “fossil-fuel influence-peddlers who help provide cheap, affordable energy” or “greedy former politicians who are cashing in with the lucrative abortion lobby.”
Then again, banning former lawmakers from lobbying, whether for two years or forever, whether for pay or no pay, is little more than political posturing.
There are fewer lobbyists in DC today than there have been in the past 20 years, even though lobbying groups spend more money promoting their causes than ever. Many former politicians are functional “lobbyists” who simply don’t register as such, yet still do virtually the same job. Which is to say, if you believe bans on speech will change the dynamic of politics, you’re incredibly naïve.
It’s unsurprising that the lobbyist-politician revolving door is nearly as busy as the journalist-political operative revolving door. Working in DC is a full-time job, and lobbying firms hire people with relevant experience and contacts. Who are they supposed to hire? Former bartenders? Snarky tweeters? Idealistic pundits? You can’t outlaw Americans from gaining experience any more than you can outlaw them from staying in Washington. What you can do is vote for decent politicians, if such things exist.
Then again, those you do vote into office know well that the average American sees “lobbying” as a catch-all for all the troubles in the world. For progressives, it’s about “corporate interests” or oil companies or Koch brothers. For conservatives, it’s unions and environmentalist groups and George Soros. For everyone, “special interests” is just a euphemism for political advocacy they dislike.
For more than a century, lobbyists have been useful strawman for elected officials who want to avoid directly insulting voters and smearing their opponents as lapdogs. The most obvious recent example is the preposterous treatment the National Rifle Association (NRA) has gotten over the years. Democrats like to pretend that the Second Amendment advocacy group is holding politicians hostage rather than merely representing the positions of millions of voters that those politicians rely on, in the same way that Planned Parenthood does.
However pernicious you might find these various causes, speech that advocates for issues you dislike isn’t “corruption.” We already have laws prohibiting fraud and bribery. Sometimes lobbyists break those laws and are prosecuted. Most of the time they do not.
As hard as it may be to believe, lobbyist speech can also be beneficial. Sometimes individuals in an industry pool their resources and hire a lobbyist who makes arguments and offers expertise—biased as it surely is—that politicians aren’t aware of. The downside, upside, or cost of legislation, for example. Surely there are ignorant elected officials who harbor puerile ideas about the world that might benefit from hearing more information and debate.
And since we’re on the subject of Ocasio-Cortez, it’s worth mentioning that both she and Cruz piggybacked on the idea brought up Democratic Party presidential hopefuls—and aren’t they all?—Michael Bennet and Elizabeth Warren, who want members of Congress to ban legislators from lobbying after they leave office.
“There’s no constitutional right to get paid to peddle influence—rightly so,” the Massachusetts senator argues. Warren, who was making $430,000 as a Harvard law professor while also pulling in six figures as a consultant in anti-trust cases around the country, knows well that Americans don’t need special permission to speak. The question is should Congress be able to ban someone like Warren, should she ever leave politics, from being able to make arguments in cases that have political implications or rely on the expertise she gained as a lawmaker?
Lobbying isn’t inherently unethical. There are lobbyists for construction workers, nurses, casket makers, lawn-care providers, and numerous other industries that most voters probably find morally neutral. Yet, not one of these outfits, not even the ones with the most money or the most politicized agendas, has ever controlled your vote or the vote of your cowardly elected official.
Politicians rely on groups whose views comport with their own agendas. Banning speech won’t change that reality.