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Shadow Lobbying Cannot Become the Norm

Shadow Lobbying Cannot Become the Norm

By: Paul A. Miller, President, National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics

According to the latest numbers, it appears lobbying is on a major decline with the total number of registered lobbyists dropping to its lowest level since 1998 (9,600 registered lobbyists) when there were 10,405 registered lobbyists.  This last quarter we saw a decline of 600 lobbyists, the largest number ever.  And since 2008, when President Obama came into office, the number of registered lobbyists has declined by over 5,300.

These numbers are troubling, not because we are seeing a true decline in our profession or fewer “lobbyists” practicing today, but because what this trend is signaling is an ever-increasing number of once-registered lobbyists simply deregistering.  The Obama Administration came into office and immediately issued an Executive Order barring lobbyists from serving in the Administration and from being appointed and serving in various other positions.  This has had a direct impact on who is and isn’t registering today.  Since 2008, we have seen a continued decrease in the number registered lobbyists.  This quarter we set an all-time high with the number of lobbyists deregistering.

The question is, why the big jump in deregistrations this quarter?  I think in part it is due to the pending presidential election.  Donald Trump has run as the non-establishment candidate, which has meant turning his rhetoric towards the so-called special interests, who he (and others) have said caused the gridlock in Washington.  When you have a candidate running on this platform and vowing to change Washington, just as President Obama did, it scares people.  I believe you have people hedging their bets on who will win in November and if their candidate wins, they want to be best positioned to get a job, appointment, or be part of the non-establishment or special interest regime.

Whatever the reason, this trend should concern everyone in this profession as well as the general public at large.  When you have an Administration sending the message that lobbyists or anyone who has been a lobbyist is not welcome, it will have professionals rethink what they do and how they do it.  When you have a potential incoming President talking about special interests and how they have gridlocked Washington for too long and under his Administration he would change that, you again have people looking at what they do and how they do it.  Since 2008 you have people re-evaluating how they conduct their business on behalf of their clients, and by the looks of these numbers, they are choosing to deregister rather than continue to live with the dreaded L label.  This really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.  This trend will continue until we change the perception of lobbyists, which probably won’t happen in my lifetime (maybe I’m too pessimistic), but what can happen today is an honest discussion of the current definition of lobbying and does it fit today’s world of “lobbying.”

The lobbying profession has changed dramatically over the past 10 years.  Today lobbying campaigns and grassroots campaigns are more heavily reliant on the use of technology than ever before.  On the one hand this has been good.  The downside of this has been these same people using this technology don’t view themselves as lobbyists in the traditional sense and aren’t registering, even though they are having the same impact on public-policy as those of us who are viewed as traditional lobbyists.

Just because one doesn’t walk the halls of Congress and sit in a meeting with a staffer or the member doesn’t mean they aren’t lobbying.  This is still an important part of any lobbying campaign, but lobbying today has evolved into so much more than what it was 10-20 years ago.  Today we can get our message out in seconds versus the days and even hours that it used to be.  Today we can have a direct impact in the matter of hours versus weeks that it used to be.  Today lobbying campaigns involve a lot of very different strategies with the same goal of influencing policy.   To some this isn’t lobbying, but just as how we impact policy has evolved, so too has the definition of lobbying and that is why it needs to be changed.

I know since the Obama Administration came in and implemented his Executive Order there has been a rush to call yourself something else other than the dreaded L word.  We have seen the shift from the word lobbyist to government affairs professional, grassroots advocates, public-policy professionals and the list goes on.  The reality is, regardless of what you call yourself, you are influencing policy and doing exactly what I am, the only difference being I am registered and you are not.  The public can see who I am lobbying for, what issues I am lobbying on, and how much I am being paid. They don’t have that luxury with those not registering.

It really doesn’t matter why people aren’t registering or deregistering.  What should matter to everyone who is registered, is that we will continue to be held in the lowest regard by the public when our profession comes off as if we aren’t willing to be transparent.   What should concern those of you who are registered is that we will be judged by bad actors who are not registered.  The public will simply blame us for their bad actions.  I’m not saying those who aren’t registered are trying to do something shady.  On the one hand, I can’t really blame them.  When the current Administration makes you enemy number one and the possible next President has the same feelings about you, then yes, I can see why people might take a hard look at how they operate.

This profession isn’t going anywhere.  We have a little document called the Constitution that protects our right to petition our government.  We simply need to stop giving the Administration, Congress and the general public ammunition to further regulate us.  If the trend of deregistering continues we will find ourselves caught up in another scandal.  This time I’m afraid that the consequences won’t be some minor changes like eliminating the gift rules.   I’m afraid it will be far reaching and a major overreach that we will not be able to do anything about.

Shadow lobbying cannot become the norm or something this profession accepts.

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