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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
February 24, 2020

12/18/2019 10:10:00 AM
What's so bad about (most) lobbyists?
By JIM NOWLAN
For the Daily News

The word on the street, say my insider friends, is that a lot of indictments are coming down soon as a result of federal public corruption probes in Chicagoland and Springfield, probably including both legislators and lobbyists. So, to stay ahead of the curve, I write this week the first of a couple of columns about the world of lobbying, the good and the bad.

The term derives from those who hung around the lobbies outside the chambers of Congress back in the day of Abraham Lincoln, seeking to nab a lawmaker to persuade him to vote for or against the interests represented by the lobbyist.

A lobbyist is an advocate, just as a lawyer is for his client. the early 1990s, I was head of a statewide business group; half my job was to lobby. I was absolutely terrible at the job, which I left after just three years. An analyst by nature, I was always trying to see the merits and weaknesses of all sides of an argument. Wrong-o, when it comes to lobbying, where passionate advocacy of a client's interests is the only position to take.

Complex legislative bodies couldn't function without lobbyists. In Illinois, 6,000 or so bills are introduced every biennial session. Lobbyists (I'd guess a third of whom are women today) distill often complex bills into understandable chunks of information. They also convey, importantly, just how intensely their clients' memberships feel about an issue, helpful to a lawmaker seeking re-election.

Here is a rather typical illustration of effective lobbying. Decades ago, I was a second-term backbench member of the Illinois House. The Illinois State Medical Society asked me to sponsor a minor bill that would require all schools of medicine in the state to create the specialty of general practice, or primary care, medicine. As I recall, the cardiologists, surgeons, urologists and other recognized specialists opposed the bill, as they looked down their noses at the old GPs. But the Society and I thought it was a good idea, which it proved to be.

The Society is powerful in Springfield. Lawmakers look up to doctors, who have an inside route to their doctors - as a physician puts the stethoscope to the chest of his lawmaker patient, the doc can subtly promote the Society's legislative agenda. And the Society has lots of money to direct to the campaign coffers of supportive legislators.

The Society's lobbyist drafted the bill, provided the supporting information, brought doctors in to testify in committee, worked the members of the House, and counted noses of support. All I had to do was present the bill in committee and on the House floor. Piece of cake. It passed overwhelmingly.

That's a good part of what lobbyists do. I used to tell my students that the best of them get the right information, in the right format, to the right lawmakers, at just the right time. For example, you don't overwhelm a possibly dim-witted lawmaker with a two-hour briefing, while the lawmaker with a PhD will be offended if you don't do so.

The business group I lobbied for didn't contribute money, but did provide invaluable, well-researched information to lawmakers. This came at the front end of the policy process, when ideas were being shaped to address problems facing government.

Good information is a critical resource, but on big issues it often isn't sufficient. I was rarely asked into the legislative leaders' offices near the end of session. That was when details and deals were being hammered out on the big issues among lobbyists and top lawmakers, and where commitments of support or opposition, and prospects of future campaign contributions, were dangled, if implicitly.

The big business associations, unions, and myriad interests often turn to contract lobbyists (who work for several or many clients each) for guidance as to where to direct their contributions, so as to support like-minded or persuadable lawmakers.

By the way, I'll bet you are a dues-paying member of one or more lobbies: teachers' unions; your employer; veterans' groups; school board, and so on.

A friend of mine defines politics and lobbying as "football without muscles." There is pushing and shoving in the quest to win for one's client. Winning is everything. For a lobbyist, it means promotion or more business.

And so in their quest to win, a few bad apples spoil the barrel for the 2,000 registered lobbyists in Illinois. The bad apples shove too hard, maybe offering illegal quid pro quos, such as money or the prospect of a cushy job after leaving the legislature, in return for handling or supporting legislation in behalf of a client.

The lure of money can obviously be corrupting. How do we separate money, as much as we can, from the hurly burly of politics? This will be the topic of a forthcoming column.



For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.









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