Thursday, April 29, 2010


When asked by a reporter - “Would you be against lobbyists who are working for your program?,” President Harry Truman replied, “We probably wouldn’t call those people lobbyists. We would call them citizens working in the public interest.”

How a politician defines who is and who isn’t a lobbyist, is as likely to depend on where the lobbyist’s clients stand with regard to the politician’s own agenda, as any other factor.

So it should come as little surprise that President Obama devoted a significant portion of his Wall Street Reform speech to attacking lobbyists.

It’s a classic political strategy - don’t engage the opposition directly, find a convenient third party to attack. During the health care debate, his target was insurance companies.

Now, with a new battle joined, his speech resorts to military terms - “we have seen battalions of financial industry lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill, firms spending millions to influence the outcome of this debate.” Battalions! Indeed.

It’s an attempt to control the debate by controlling who takes part in the debate. So he demonizes lobbyists -  “despite the furious effort of industry lobbyists to shape this legislation to their special interests.” He frames the debate as being one between House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, versus the evil “special interests.”

Lobbyists are an easy target, because few people know what lobbyists actually do. More than that, few people realize lobbying - the right to petition for a redress of grievances- is the oldest right contained in the First Amendment. It dates back to the Magna Carta in 1215.

It is a right exercised on both sides of almost every issue. To match those who oppose new Wall Street regulations, there is another cadre who promotes them. What makes lobbying such an important right? It keeps the well-intentioned people in government, from doing things which have unintended consequences.

It’s what I call - A Right for a Reason.

So, will President Obama’s vitriol against lobbyists succeed? Perhaps we should look to history for the answer.

In the end - Harry Truman is remembered for many things. His attack on lobbyists is not one of them!

From The Bully Pulpit - Tom


  1. There are quite a number of books currently out on the market on this topic. It's amazing (and amusing) how the same information can be presented as advocacy or denouncement... which I suppose may be a shadow definition of lobbying in and of itself! Good, timely and informative piece, Tom.

  2. I try endless to make this point.

    The first amendment provides for freedom of speech, of assembly, and the freedom to petition the government. It would be hard to find a clearer definition of "lobbying."

    Whether it is Madisonian faith in the counter-balancing work of factions, or awareness of the sheer number of special interests propagated (and in which millions of people unwittingly participate), the role and function of lobbying - or "advocacy" as tender hearts prefer to call it - is something most people are completely ignorant of.

  3. Lina - yes, it's amazing. The attitude seems to be - "Those other guys have lobbyists, WE have advocates!" Thanks for commenting.

  4. Jason - yes. plus, it is one of the few privileges and immunities a citizen has: “It is said to be the right of the citizen of this great country, to come to the seat of government, to assert any claim he may have upon that government, to transact any business he may have with it, to seek its protection, to share its offices, to engage in administering its functions;” - Slaughter House Cases - 1873

    Thanks for commenting.

  5. And some folks don't want to be called lobbyists because they're for "good government" as opposed to the lobbyists who just happen to be for "representative government". God save us from "good government"!

  6. Anonymous - yes, they seem to think it's somehow different, when they are doing the lobbying! As I have described them in some of my op-ed pieces on the subject - they are the folks who "march in lockstep to the drumbeat of their own sanctimony."

    It's the same as with any other right - if you can infringe on my exercise of that right for reasons you have decided are justified, then I will one day be able to do the same to you when times change.

    Thanks for your comment.