We are ALL Special Interests

I haven’t posted anything in quite a while, but I’ve had plenty of time to read and listen to the news and am beginning to grow weary of the constant harping about lobbyists and special interests. Maybe it’s because the Texas Legislature is finally finished—until a special session is called—and the lobbyists are now lining up with the campaign contributions from PACs and individuals (corporate contributions are illegal in Texas).

Let’s face it, whichever side of the debate you’re on, the other side is always catering to “special interests,” or so it would seem from the rhetoric. Comments after articles on Web sites, blogs, and in social media forums often include epithets like “I don’t have a lobbyist, why should _______ benefit from a lobbyist?” Even better, “Who’s looking out for the little guy who can’t pay for a lobbyist?”

I’ve got news for those folks—unless they live in a cave, don’t have a job or bank account, never buy insurance or food or gasoline or clothes and don’t belong to any organizations, they’ve got a lobbyist that they are paying for. That lobbyist may or may not be working directly for you (think “insurance companies”) but you’re paying for them just the same.

I was having this discussion with someone over lunch some time ago, and he adamantly insisted that he does not have any lobbyists working for him, that lobbyists only work for special interests and all special interest groups are opposed to everything he is and stands for. The check came, and when he opened his wallet to get his credit card out, I got a glimpse of his National Rifle Association (NRA) membership card, and nearly laughed out loud.

I could quit here, but I won’t. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA has a lobbying budget in excess of $35 million. This lobbying component includes one million citizen workers at the precinct level—community organizers, if you will, although the NRA calls them “political organizers.” The NRA also spent countless millions on issue advertising during various election cycles. Fortune Magazine has consistently listed the NRA as the most powerful lobby in the nation. They are so powerful that when the National Smokers Association (now the National Smokers Alliance) was formed by Phillip Morris, they adopted the NRA community organizer model.

(By the way, many “grassroots” organizations like the National Smokers Alliance are really “Astroturf” organizations funded by large corporations. If you were in Dallas/Fort Worth during the Wright Amendment debate, you’ll remember the dueling groups funded by Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.)

But let’s not just pick on smokers and shooters. How about old people? As a card-carrying member of AARP, I help to fund a $17 million lobbying effort on behalf of my fellow uh, er, chronologically mature folks.

And then there are we drivers—50 million of us pony up money to AAA for their roadside assistance program (which is getting worse, but that’s a subject for another blog) and unwittingly pay for lobbyists who work for such legislation as wider roads while opposing the Clean Air Act, mass transit systems, automobile airbags, and virtually every state, local and federal proposal aimed at cutting automobile air pollution. (I’m re-thinking my membership.) AAA also pays a huge amount of money into the Highway Users Alliance, an Astroturf organization purported to be working for drivers but is really representing the interests of the cement industry, the large automobile manufacturers, tire companies, bus and truck industry trade groups, and others with a vested interest in keeping the rubber on the road. Because of hidden memberships like this, it’s difficult to find out exactly how much AAA spends on lobbying each year, but it’s undoubtedly a lot of money.

Unless you’ve got your money (what’s left of it after the Crash of 2008) buried in a coffee can in the backyard, you probably use a bank, a credit union or a savings and loan. You probably pay an electric bill and maybe a gas bill, and if you’ve got a car and house you buy insurance. All those companies belong to trade associations which employ lobbyists, and most hire lobbyists directly. While they’ll say they are working for the customer, watch out—it’s not always the case, although I know from personal experience that many of these folks do go to bat for the customer—when it’s in their business’ best interests. (Can you spell ELECTRICITY DEREGULATION?)

If you work for a big company, they have lobbyists, and if you pay into the Political Action Committee (PAC) at that company, you’ll be contributing directly to the checks the lobbyists take to all those fundraisers. They’ll be working for the interests of the company, which theoretically at least will help you out by providing a business climate in which you can keep your job. (Tell that to General Motors and Chrysler workers facing plant closures.)

Now that health care reform is being considered, know that the pharmaceutical companies, doctor’s organizations, hospital trade groups and any company or organization even remotely related to the healthcare industry is getting the wagons in a circle around their position on the issue. If you buy aspirin, have been to a hospital or take a prescription drug (even the $4 WalMart ones) you’re paying for a lobbyist–and they may or may not be working for your position on healthcare reform.

But not all “special interests” are huge mega-organizations, and not all lobbyists work for big firms. There are thousands of organizations with lobbying activities. Pro-life groups (like the National Right to Life) and pro-choice groups all employ lobbyists in addition to producing issue ads around campaign time. And since 1990, computer and Internet interests have contributed more than $185 million to campaigns. So any Internet fees you pay mean you’ve got somebody, somewhere lobbying for that company and the industry.

If you live in a city you are represented in your state capitol and in Washington by representatives from your local council of governments, the Municipal League, and other state and national organizations of cities and municipalities. Small business owners have the National Federation of Independent Businesses (The #2 lobbying group in the US according to the website Top 10 Links). Duck hunters have Ducks Unlimited, birdwatchers the Audubon Society, hikers the Sierra Club, motorcyclists have the National League of Motorcyclists and bicyclists have the League of American Bicyclists. I could go on, and might in a future post, but bottom line—WE ALL PAY FOR LOBBYISTS. So what can we do about it? COMMUNICATE.

If you belong to an organization that employs lobbyists (and that’s easy to figure out via the Internet), communicate with the leadership. Let them know how you feel about the issues they’re addressing, supposedly on your behalf, before your elected officials. If you find out that the organization’s lobbying position is contrary to your personal position, seriously reconsider your membership, and let them know your feelings if you leave.

Yes, lobbyists are working on behalf of special interests, but we must never lose sight of the fact that each and every citizen is, or has, a special interest that we must work to represent. It is not enough to sit back and let others do the talking for us, or worse, complain about those who do the talking.

Never forget our right as citizens to lobby our legislators, whether at the local, state or federal level. Write, call and/or visit your elected officials’ offices as often as possible, and try to talk to the member as well as the staff person in charge of the issue. Insist they listen, and ask plenty of questions about why they feel the way they do about an issue. If you’re intimidated by this process, look at websites with civics instructions, such as http://www.acontrario.org/activism.

And remember, the next time you complain about special interests controlling Washington or Austin or City Hall, YOU are a special interest too.

3 thoughts on “We are ALL Special Interests

  1. Samra Jones Bufkins, APR June 16, 2009 / 4:20 pm

    Just learned about another Astroturf organization. The National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running is, you guessed it, funded by the red light camera industry.

  2. Samra Jones Bufkins, APR June 10, 2009 / 9:42 pm

    Agreed. And I'd like to see some of them show a spine now and then.

    And in all my research on lobby groups, I totally forgot the American Cancer Society, Komen for the Cure, National MS Society, American Heart Association–anybody who's ever given them a gift has helped support lobby efforts. Not all lobbyists are bad, and not all causes are bad (or good) but we as citizens need to know that the best way to represent ourselves is BY OURSELVES!

  3. Curt Horne June 9, 2009 / 8:26 pm

    Well said, and very true. Somewhere in this process, there is a line, and I fear that entirely too many of our “representatives”, on both sides of the aisle, no longer think anything about crossing over that line.

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