Tuesday , March 13, 2018 - 4:00 AM
With the recent end of the annual Utah legislative session and the ongoing policymaking activities in Washington, this is a good time to discuss lobbying.
The common definition of a lobbyist is one who conducts activities aimed at influencing or swaying public officials and especially members of a legislative body.
A recent Gallup survey of the public’s perception of 22 of America’s prominent professions sought ratings of their honesty and ethical standards.
The five most respected professional categories were nurses, military officers, grade school teachers, medical doctors and pharmacists, in that order. The five least respected professionals were business executives, advertising practitioners, members of Congress, car salespeople and lobbyists, with lobbyists at the very bottom of the list.
In preparation for this column, I asked for observations from student interns at Weber State University’s Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service. The interns just spent the last 45 days as full-time assistants to individual legislators in the Utah capitol. In their roles, these interns interacted with lobbyists on a daily basis involving a variety of subjects and causes.
“Before the session, I had very little knowledge of lobbyists,” wrote one. “I had an idea of their role – to influence legislators in a way that would benefit their special interests. Until then my opinion fell closely in line with the stigma often ascribed to lobbyists. I thought they were scummy, shady, money-hungry and manipulative. Although these characteristics shed some light, I’ve found many more positive attributes in the lobbyists I’ve met on Capitol Hill. They are very personable, kind, genuine, intelligent, reasonable (most of the time) and effective.”
Another intern noted, “I think lobbyists are sometimes helpful and sometimes a distraction. But they are clearly an important part of the legislative process and sometimes offer great insight that is very helpful to legislators when making their decisions.”
One of the interns responded that legislators sometimes talk within their intimate circle, and in doing so, they see just what they see. He observed that “lobbyists expand that vision by illustrating various sides to an issue thus working as a tool for a check on the use of uninformed power.”
Wikipedia describes lobbying as “a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions…[and] it includes all attempts to influence legislators and officials, whether by other legislators, constituents, or organized groups.”
Aren’t we all lobbyists from time to time?
If we’ve ever written a letter to the editor, visited a city council, county commission, school board or state legislative meeting for a cause, we’ve lobbied. If we’ve ever belonged to a union, a parent-teacher group, a professional association, a civic club or a religious advocacy group, we’ve been, if not lobbyists in very deed, at least supporters of lobbyists who’ve represented our initiatives.
Legislation and public policy impact every single one of us. Lobbying is the channel we use to react, respond and advocate.
“Lobbyists often give individuals and underrepresented groups a chance to provide their input and take part in the process of governance,” wrote one of our student interns.
As we review the public perception and ranking of American professions, surely we must realize that even in the most highly respected vocations there are top performers and poor performers. Most nurses are amazing and healing angels; some are not. Most educators are great teachers; some are not. We must, therefore, assume that in the ranks of lobbyists, most are to be trusted and some are not.
So, perhaps we should consider damning the dirty ones but praising the good ones who perform a meaningful and significant role in the democratic process of our communities, our state and our nation.
Robert Hunter is director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University. Student legislative interns Aziz Alnasri, Taylor Covey, Isaac Eck, Jeff Gradner, Ryan Keliipuleole, Andrew Waldrip, Todd Waltz and Jennica Willden contributed to this column.
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