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Lobbyists: Unsung Heroes Of The Poor?

In his Washington Post column today, Robert Samuelson attempts to make the case that lobbyists--vilified throughout the campaign as corrupt peddlers of sleaze--are in fact the nation's unsung defenders of the poor:

A second myth is that lobbying favors the wealthy, including corporations, because only they can afford the cost. As a result, government favors the rich and ignores the poor and middle class. Actually, the facts contradict that. Sure, the wealthy extract privileges from government, but mainly they're its servants...the poor and middle class do have powerful advocates. To name three: AARP for retirees; the AFL-CIO for unionized workers; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for the poor.

Just last month, former GOP majority leader Trent Lott valiantly tried to make the same argument in defense of his new profession (as I describe in my story in the current issue of TNR). But what both Samuelson and Lott conveniently ignore is that lobbyists for America's poor are hardly the major players on K Street; in fact, they're mostly muscled around by the corporate lobbyists--the kind who can "afford the cost" of enormously expensive campaigns to sway policy and legislation.

Last year, the pharmaceutical industry alone spent $168 million on lobbying Capitol Hill. By contrast, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities--which the Post has previously championed as a fiscally-minded "powerhouse for the poor"--has a total annual budget of $13 million, mostly devoted to producing wonkish reports on topics like food stamps and state budgets. Though they have tried to influence federal budget decisions, CBPP is primarily a think-tank, not an advocacy group--and to argue that the group's political clout is comparable to a lobby like PhRMA or the National Association of Manufacturers is blatantly absurd.

Samuelson also fights against the notion that lobbyists, armed with buckets of campaign cash, woo legislators based on access and friendly relationships alone. "Lobbying is much more substantive and out in the open than its ugly caricature," one of his sources says. "Lobbyists primarily woo lawmakers with facts." Well, it's certainly true that lobbying across the board has become more substantive in nature, as I also discuss in my piece. But as much as Samuelson may want to believe otherwise, this hasn't always been the case: Abramoff wasn't so much an aberration as the unfortunate consequence of the culture of favor-trading that characterized Delay's K Street Project. While some of the anti-lobbying stereotypes may be unfair, they didn't just materialize out of nowhere. These criticisms ultimately helped push through ethics reforms that have altered the culture of the lobbying industry--along with the return of Democratic rule and the promise of unprecedented government involvement in a wide range of industries.

So, yes, lobbyists are more likely these days to rely on fact-based arguments and policy expertise to sway lawmakers. But that doesn't change the fact that corporate lobbyists still have outsized pocketbooks and disproportionately powerful players to make their case.

--Suzy Khimm