More Want More from Congress

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Sunday, December 4, 2005
When I first came to Congress in the 1960s, many constituents held a reliably consistent view of government: the less of it, the better. "All we want," I must have heard hundreds of times, "is for the government to leave us alone." Or, as lobbyists would often insist to me, "Get the government out of my business!" 

Today, a member of Congress hears just as much about government from lobbyists and constituents, but their pleas are very different. "All we need," the refrain now goes, "is this little tax break." Or subsidy. Or contract. Or highway overpass. Or regulatory waiver. Or liability cap. 

If you want to explain the skyrocketing number of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, this shift from rejecting government to embracing it is a good place to start. You could get a good argument going at any Washington cocktail party by asking just what created it — growth in the reach and activities of the federal government, or a growing belief among Americans that federal involvement can help solve some of their problems. 

My sense, actually, is that it's both. Nowadays more people want more things from Washington than they did four decades ago, and the federal government has grown accordingly. At the same time, the nation has grown more complex and so has its needs; simply put, the federal government has more to do now. The era of big government is not over. 

The result is that all sorts of Americans want all sorts of things from Washington. There is a broad sense in the nation now that what Congress does — or does not do — can have a major impact on people's lives and fortunes. It should come as no surprise that so many people try to influence what happens on Capitol Hill. 

Overall, this interest is healthy. Even if we don't always recognize it, it matters to most of us who gets to sit on the Supreme Court, or what shape a new Medicaid bill takes, or how the health care system gets regulated. Congress needs to hear from us on such questions, and it usually does. Indeed, on these big issues, so many letters, telephones calls and e-mails are generated and so many different groups are elbowing each other for influence that, in the end, the impact of any one lobbying effort is muted. 

What ought to concern us, though, is the little stuff: the regulatory tweaks and legal nudges that get slipped into bills because they help one interest group or another — usually at the expense of some rival interest group, or of taxpayers in general. 

Lobbyists in Washington spend their days trying to secure benefits for their clients that most Americans don't even know exist: waivers under the immigration law, a piece of the radio spectrum, special tax credits, extra protection for patent rights or extensions of intellectual property rights or relief from pension obligations... The list is endless. 

There is nothing nefarious about this. Lobbyists do not dream up the problems they come to Congress about; they're representing real people facing real dilemmas that cannot be solved without government help. Indeed, trying to influence the actions of government is what our system is about — that is why we have representatives in Congress. 

The challenge to our system comes when one group of people — in this case, those who can afford to hire skillful lobbyists — carves out an advantage for themselves over those who don't have as much money, and then use it to pursue their goals far from the light of day. 

You could argue, I suppose, that the only sure way to reduce the influence of lobbyists is to reduce the need for lobbyists by curtailing the federal government's reach into American society. But this is unlikely to happen. 

Instead, it seems to me that our challenge as a nation is to find a way of making the playing field more level — that is, of making sure that the thoughts and concerns of the ordinary citizen carry just as much weight in Congress as those of the expensively clad lobbyists who consider Capitol Hill their second home. What is at stake, after all, is representative government itself. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)