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One Day for Voters, Everyday for Lobbyists

LEGISLATING FOR AMERICA: In this eighth and last article in a series on the U.S. legislative process, Robert Conot looks at the public's access to legislators.

November 02, 1986|Robert Conot | Robert Conot has spent 1986 examining the U.S. legislative process for The Times

THOUSAND OAKS — Voters going to the polls on Tuesday will render judgment on California legislators who enacted 3,000 measures and on members of Congress who passed about 500 bills and resolutions during the last two years. Even if they are well-informed, people will not know the contents of 99% of this legislation or how their representatives voted. They will never have heard of some candidates on the ballot. They will make other choices on the basis of impressions left by 30-second television spots seemingly designed more to obfuscate than to enlighten. Americans not only cast ballots in secret, many of them also do it in the dark.

Elections are imperfect referendums because availability of information and accessibility of lawmakers are chronic problems for democratic government. The legislative process is complex and subject to a variety of influences. Newspapers have difficulty providing comprehensive coverage. Commercial television deals in pictorial headlines. Lobbyists contest the electorate for legislators' attention and voting power. Since voters have little comprehension of how to influence the legislative process, and most live at distance from the scene of action, the scales are tilted in favor of the lobbyist, an on-the-spot professional.

Proximity, then, is a key element. The issues people are likely to be best informed about and take personal interest in are local. Constituents, appearing individually or in groups before councils and boards of supervisors, usually find that these bodies are responsive--responsiveness is a factor of accessibility.

While citizens generally represent themselves in business before local government, lobbyists, who made their debut outside the 17th-Century British Parliament, are primarily creatures of state and national capitals. The growth of government during the Depression and World War II gave the profession such an impetus that in 1946 Life magazine ran an eloquent letter from a reader, asking: Where are the lobbyists for America?

In the last quarter-century, the expansion of government has brought lobbying to even fuller flower. Whenever government enters a field, a multitude of lobbies germinate. If, for example, you're an educator, a schools bill that is passed, with funds appropriated or not appropriated, will affect your livelihood; you want to have an input. Your perspective is likely to be the same as President Harry S. Truman's. Asked how he justified lobbyists for his programs, he responded: "We probably wouldn't call those people lobbyists. We would call them citizens appearing in the public interest."

The approximately 10,000 active lobbyists and 4,000 political-action committees in Washington are a reflection of just how far the reaches of the government extend; and while emphasis may shift from administration to administration, the total keeps expanding. The stereotype of the individual influence peddler knocking on congressional doors has given way to professional organization--lobbying firms grow to rival corporate law firms. Advocacy is seldom any longer one-sided but resembles a kind of scrimmage, teams of lobbyists on opposite sides batting arms and butting heads.

Adept at manipulating public opinion, lobbies also work behind the scenes to create seemingly spontaneous groundswells. During Senate Finance Committee debate on the current tax reform bill, Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) observed: "I've been sitting here three years on this committee watching not only how the rich get rich but how they stay rich. And I think I have found the solution. We don't see out here in these halls the General Electrics and the General Dynamics and the major corporations of America lobbying. What we see is hundreds of phone calls coming into my office from poor broke farmers that the Investment Tax Credit Coalition has told that if you bought a tractor a year ago you're going to get back $212 if you get Sen. Pryor to get these Investment Tax Credits back. So they're using the poor to do their work. They talk about the $200 the farmer gets back but they don't talk about the $150 million or $600 million that one corporation is going to get back."

All lobbyists are not equal, nor are all legislators. The Edison Electric Institute has an annual budget of $26.4 million. Environmental Action, sometimes an antagonist, has a budget of $450,000. The lobbyist who has the resources to put together a compelling presentation is well on his way to obtaining lawmakers' votes. And whose votes will he obtain? First, those of the leadership and the chairman of the committee having jurisdiction over the bill. Next, other members of that committee. Only lastly, the general membership. Major legislation can provide a bonanza. During 1985, the 35 members of the House Ways and Means Committee and 21 members of the Senate Finance Committee involved in writing the tax bill received a total of $19.8 million in campaign contributions.

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