Ross Perot May Bash Lobbyists, but James Madison Never Would

I grew up in a not quite middle class, "Ozzie and Harriet" neighborhood. While I was growing up, all of the moms in the neighborhood wore what we called "house dresses". That's what they wore while they were cooking, cleaning, and caring for us kids. All of the moms, that is, except mine. My mother is 77-years-old and I have never seen her wear a house dress. While all the other moms were wearing house dresses, my mom was wearing jeans. Always being a little ahead of her time, and living a little on the edge, my mom wore blue jeans before it was cool to wear blue jeans.

Mom taught me a lot, but a couple of things stand out. One was to dare to be different, and then (probably as a survival tactic) she also taught me not to care what other people think. Without those two lessons, I probably could not be what I am today, because it's hard to imagine being a professional lobbyist and caring about what other people think.

I am often asked, as we all are, in social situations, "What is it that you do?" Not being inclined to use euphemisms, I answer, "I'm a lobbyist." I have had people physically recoil from me, take a step back and look at me as if they were expecting me to sprout horns and a pointy tail.

The term "lobby" means an "attempt to influence" and the term has a long history. It does not have American origins. "To lobby" goes back to Britain at the time of the signing of the Magna Carta, when the monarchy first gave governing rights to a newly formed Parliament. It did not take long before there were guys standing outside the doors of Parliament waiting to buttonhole the members as they left the chambers. These guys were standing in the lobby, and soon, the term "lobby" came to mean an attempt to influence.

Most people think of lobbying as something sneaky and underhanded. People figure that lobbyists get the attention and influence of lawmakers by doing something dastardly. That's because most people think you can buy a vote. Let me tell you as someone who has watched the legislature in Wisconsin and in Washington D.C. for almost 23 years, that if any legislators can be bought, they are not worth the price. Kirby Hendee, a former legislator and retired lobbyist here in Wisconsin, had this to say about using money to gain access to, or influence, lawmakers: "It is a lot like dancing with a gorilla. You don't sit down until the gorilla gets tired." If someone's access to, and influence over a legislator are dependent on money, they are only in good shape until someone else comes along with more.

Who hires lobbyists? The answer is "special interest groups". We have heard a good deal about special interest groups. You may recall the 1994 presidential election when Ross Perot jabbed his index finger through the air and talked about those "nasty special interest groups" with their "undue influence" and "unfair advantage".

Well, I want to take a moment and give you a little civics lesson. You were probably raised like I was, to believe that it is your civic duty to vote. Voting is the very cornerstone of our democratic system of government. It is what makes our government special, and I am willing to wager that everyone who is reading this article exercises that right. Unfortunately, too few citizens exercise the other rights we are guaranteed as Americans. You see, voting is just the beginning. If all we do is vote, it is no wonder we are disappointed by what our elected representatives do.

In the Bill of Rights, in the United States Constitution, we are guaranteed a good number of other things and a couple of the most important are the "right to assemble" and the "right to petition the government for redress of grievances". Our founders designed it this way. We were guaranteed the right to "petition our government", that is, to let our elected representatives know how we feel, what we think, what our views are on any and all issues. We are also guaranteed the "right to assemble" into some of those nasty special interest groups. In fact, more that 200 years ago, James Madison, one of the founders of this country, wrote in The Federalist Papers that "an essential characteristic of a representative democracy is that various interest groups in the society are permitted to compete for the attention of the government". We have the right to form groups of like-minded citizens, and we have the right to petition our government and let our elected representatives know what we think. So we should not begrudge those who take the time to get involved politically and legislatively. Special interest groups are simply exercising their rights; the rights guaranteed them in the Constitution.

I want to encourage more of you to get involved, and to do some grassroots lobbying. You need to exercise your rights. Let your lawmakers know what you think.

I know from working within our great democracy, within our form of government, that one person can make a difference. I know it. I've lived it. So don't begrudge other special interest groups, those organizations of like-minded citizens who have joined forces to petition the government. Instead, aspire to one of the most powerful special interest groups. Take the time to get involved.

Copyright, 2003: Janet R. Swandby, Coenen/Swandby Associates, Inc.


Government Relations | Association Management


Swandby/Kilgore Associates, Inc.