Nonprofit Lobbyists and the Obama Administration

Another one of my intrepid students sent me this article following a class discussion on the importance of reclaiming the word ‘lobbyist’ and of nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations engaging in policy advocacy. It raises a totally new issue for nonprofit lobbyists, and, I believe, for the formulation of good public policy in our country today. It is an issue on which I am frankly a bit conflicted, and it hits fairly close to home, since I am lucky enough to count Cecilia Muñoz, whom the article references as one of only three individuals to receive an exemption from the lobbyist prohibition, as a former colleague and a friend. I don’t know personally the other two individuals who received exemptions or the Human Rights Watch lobbyist who did not, but I am certainly familiar with HRW’s work and its excellent reputation in the field. So, then, with that context, do I think that this is a necessary precaution in order to limit the influence of ‘special interests’ in politics, an unfortunate overreach that suggests the need for greater discretion, or a misguided policy that reflects a mistaken understanding about how to improve governance in the U.S.? Honestly? A little bit of all three.
First, I am generally much more pro-lobbyist than the average American, I realize. I have had the opportunity to work with many lobbyists, mainly those who work on behalf of nonprofit organizations, but also some who do not, who are honest and intelligent and very ethical. I believe that it is impossible to expect our elected officials to be experts on every policy issue they confront, and I think that lobbyists can do important work highlighting some of the relevant factors to consider, providing information to help officials make decisions, and bringing constituent concerns directly to lawmakers. The best way to curb the undue influence of corporate lobbyists in the political process is, I believe, not through restrictions on lobbyists altogether but through effective campaign finance reform (because if all the lobbyists had to offer was good information, then we’d all be on a more level playing field) and, of course, more effective organizing and advocacy on behalf of those not represented by corporate America (more of us, then, rather than just less of them!). We have to acknowledge that, in many policy areas, those who are best informed are those who have been working outside of government to influence opinion and change laws, and, if we deny our nation their service in these same policy arenas, we will unnecessarily back ourselves up years in trying to move forward.
If the policy is going to stand, however (at least in the interim as we hopefully pursue better campaign finance laws), then I don’t agree with those quoted in the article who suggest that nonprofit organizations deserve some kind of blanket exemption. There are many nonprofit organizations that really function as ‘fronts’ for corporate interests and that, at least, do not represent the vulnerable or voiceless by any stretch of the imagination. We would be painting with such a broad brush, then, as to just gut the regulation while pretending that we’re still doing something; any corporation with any sense of strategy would just start a nonprofit ‘educational foundation’ or coalition or something, hire lobbyists for it, fund it with their profits, and then get both substantial tax benefits and the unfettered access they desire.
But in what ways is this a good idea? I’m partially for it, but not for the reasons that one might suspect–integrity and transparency and all that. My greatest concern with nonprofit lobbyists going to work for the federal government doesn’t relate to ‘undue influence’ but rather the very real danger of cooptation. It’s true; once you’re on the inside, you often lose a lot of your edge, and we have seen many examples of smart administrations bringing some of its sharpest critics on board as a way of blunting their impact. To the extent that the Obama Administration’s rules, then, keep these agitators on the outside, actually agitating, rather than bring them in to dilute their strength, then it’s a wonderful thing for nonprofit advocacy. The truth is that, while I’m delighted, on the one hand, to see Cecilia in the White House where I know that she will keep working for strong immigration reform and respect for immigrant workers’ rights, her departure also means that we have to work that much harder to build up our bench of folks on the Capitol Lawn, in the halls of Congress, on the radio waves…where we can say and do (Thanks, Bill of Rights!) just about whatever we need to in order to rally our base and continue our fight. And that’s what I hope that Human Rights Watch realizes, too–that, at least this way, their positions won’t be censored by a necessarily political administration but can instead remain, ideologically and strategically, purely committed to their cause.

Nonprofit Lobbyists Barred from Obama Administration

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