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Of Course We Need Lobbysists, Said the Lobbyist

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During the presidential campaign and again during the transition, lobbyists were in an uproar about restrictions Obama placed on their money and on hiring them. Now, as the Obama administration doles out the first of the stimulus money, lobbyists inside and outside of D.C. are whining about restrictions placed on their interaction with the federal officials responsible for disbursing the funds. The administration's policy:

doesn't prohibit all communication. Lobbyists are allowed to gather logistical information, such as deadlines for applications, for their clients. But they cannot advocate a particular program or project for funding.

The lobbyists - who seem strangely capable of getting their voices heard - claim that the restrictions are preventing the most knowledgeable representatives of the private and public sectors from influencing the projects that are funded. "Modest enterprises" (like smaller cities), they claim, will suffer the most.

While the claims of the lobbyists (who include the ACLU) seem reasonable, they presume that the best means to expend stimulus funds is for special interests (state and local governments, along with private firms) to tell the government how the funds should be spent.

But in a recent article for The American that is otherwise filled with dangerous simplifications, fear mongering, and exaggerations, James DeLong hits upon an important point:

In Washington, the debate has atrophied, and few lawyers and lobbyists even know that it was once questioned whether the Special Interest State is an appropriate form of organization for a polity. The theory that government is and should be a contest among alliances of special interests has swept the day. Of course groups struggle to grab and exploit levers of power for selfish ends and then use these to the maximum, and of course agency and congressional staff ally with one or another of these mercenary armies while in government, and of course they then go to work for the interests they used to "govern" (wink, wink), and so what? Do you have a point here?

Our agreement begins and ends at this paragraph and I'm certain my conclusions from this paragraph diverge greatly from those of Mr. DeLong. But he is certainly right that we now presume that for government to function at all lobbyists must provide us with their specialized knowledge of, what, the intricacies of carbon capture and sequestration so that we can solve global warming? Are our brains so "atrophied" that we now believe there is no other way for the Department of Transportation to learn what highways need fixing or that the MTA needs funds for its capital plan without a lobbyist for Houston or New York City sidling up to a federal official?

Why not reverse the chain of events? Of course citizens need the right to petition their government. But should federal agencies not themselves be actively engaged in figuring out which stimulus projects work best, in concert, to create short-, medium-, and long-term recovery?

This is difficult to accomplish. But the Obama administration's lobbying policy is pointed in this direction, towards empowering the federal government to overcome, rather than be driven by, particular interests. Building up a team of policy operatives to visit with state and local governments and with private firms - a sort of reverse lobbying - would enhance the effort further.