Some of My Best Friends Are Lobbyists

Some of My Best Friends Are Lobbyists

Some of My Best Friends Are Lobbyists
April 24, 2014

A priest and a lobbyist arrive at the gates of heaven. They’re greeted by Saint Peter and given room assignments. The priest gets a tiny 10’ x 10’ cell; the lobbyist gets the penthouse suite. 

“That’s unfair!” grouses the father. “Do you know all the good I’ve done on earth?” Saint Peter smiles soothingly and explains: “Priests and rabbis are a dime a dozen up here, padre. This is the first lobbyist we’ve ever seen.” 

I know, I know. Lobbyists get little respect—only slightly more than repo men and political consultants. But in fairness to the craft—and this isn’t meant to be facetious—Albany wouldn’t be Albany, Trenton wouldn’t be Trenton and Sacramento wouldn’t be Sacramento without that steady stream of blue-suited favor-peddling public affairs professionals pounding the hallways…and the backs of elected officials. Governments would grind to a halt. 

Without lobbyists, legislators would have to read bills. Worse than that, they’d have to write them. Just imagine what they might come up with. Actually, don’t. The world is frightening enough as is. 

Jokes aside, it’s no exaggeration to call lobbyists the oil in the engine of government. And the bigger and more complex governments get, the more capitol cartographers are necessary to traverse their gears and pistons— if you want to get things done. It’s as true at the local and state level today as it has been for two centuries in the quicksands of Washington. 

Fifteen years ago a college friend headed to Washington with a spectacular product for the intelligence industry. The product was a slam dunk. Everybody said so, especially those who worked in the dark arts. My friend was on every most-likely-to-succeed list; people begged to invest in his company, to get in on the ground floor. Some of us begged more successfully than others... 

But there was one problem. My classmate refused to hire a lobbyist on the Hill. Despite poking and prodding from a lot of savvy people, he stuck to his guns. His product was the class of the field, he stubbornly maintained, and contracts would materialize based on merit. Period. 

That company is now bankrupt, and my classmate was last seen doing the backstroke in the bottom quarter of a fifth of Beefeater. I can think of a half dozen lobbying firms in New York that could have spared him that fate. 

Landing contracts and greasing the skids for legislation are not all lobbyists do, though. They serve an important public function too. Just like opposition researchers in political campaigns— another jilted profession—who raise valid objections to aspiring political candidates, lobbyists hoist red flags where red flags need to be hoisted. For every cockamamie new idea being advanced by one lobbyist, there is usually another pointing out its flaws. That may slow down the advancement of good ideas, but more important, it stops a lot of bad ideas from ever becoming law. That’s invaluable. 

In recent years Albany lobbyists have unfairly borne the brunt of cynicism over corruption in state government. (Isn’t it always the hooker who gets blamed for wiggling her hips, while the john gets away scot-free?) The rules lobbyists have to abide by as a result—the paperwork alone—are punitive and absurd. Lobbyists who always played it straight are the ones who cross every t and dot every i on those forms. The ones who want to play fast and loose continue to do so and always will, despite the paperwork they sign. 

Meticulous lobbying records do offer one important public function, though, for those willing to dig. They explain a lot about the legislation being pushed in Albany and elsewhere today. 

My late Aunt Priscilla, a noted editor and Renaissance woman— she was the one who typed “Japan Surrenders,” announcing the end of the World War II as a UPI reporter— always advised newspaper readers to ask, “Who placed this story, and why?” If you can figure that out, she noted, you’ll get a pretty good idea of how the world works. 

Same goes for lobbyists. If you can find out who’s behind or against any given bill, you can learn a lot about its true intentions, which aren’t always apparent. That’s a good exercise for civics class. 

Albany lobbyists are the best in the business, and, on balance, they deliver a real public service. The only thing I would advise for them is a professional image makeover, perhaps with a catchphrase. 

I’m thinking: 

  • Lobbyists: Isn’t it time you had one, too? 
  • Lobbyists: Use us or end up swimming in gin, or 
  • Lobbyists: At least we’re not PR flaks. 


William O’Reilly is a Republican political consultant.


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