This piece originally appeared in MassLive on November 15, 2019.
If you hear the word “lobbyist” and imagine a villain, you’re not alone. But the truth is, lobbying is a vital constitutional right.
The First Amendment protects your right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The Supreme Court has said the right to petition is “among the most precious” liberties and implicit in “the very idea of” government. It’s inseparable from the freedoms of speech and assembly.
Yet this fundamental freedom is routinely endangered by the very elected officials who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. Earlier this fall, Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled a sweeping plan that would violate the free speech, petition, and assembly rights of Americans.
Senator Warren says she wants to “end lobbying as we know it.” Her plan would regulate as a “lobbyist” anyone who is paid to influence lawmakers – no matter how little they spend in time or money – and ban those “lobbyists” from contributing to political campaigns. To top it off, she would impose a special tax on lobbying. Government can’t, and shouldn’t try to, tax our right to speak.
Expanded lobbying laws would burden Americans who are simply trying to help their communities. Consider a former cafeteria worker who starts a company to provide healthier lunch options to public schools. She may want to speak to lawmakers about the importance of nutrition in education. Or a CEO of a renewable energy company may want to share his expertise with Congress on how to craft more environmentally-friendly energy laws. What good would come from making it harder for them to speak?
Aside from being unconstitutional, the plan is counterproductive. Its stated goal is to put power “back where it belongs – in the hands of the people.” But banning certain Americans from making campaign contributions and encumbering ordinary citizens with complex, overbroad regulations harms our democracy.
The presumption that lobbying is inherently bad is wrong. Most lobbying is done out of a sincere belief that changes in certain laws are needed to make our nation a better place.
Moreover, corruption and undue influence will not be rooted out by regulation. After all, many groups attempt to “influence” government for the very purpose of fighting corruption. Good government groups and watchdogs will be harmed by regulations that limit their ability to speak about, or to, government leaders. And corrupt officials will face far less criticism if advocacy is tightly controlled by the feds.
Current law does not force candidates to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists. If a politician thinks those contributions are akin to bribery, she may simply reject them. Most of us appreciate a candidate who exercises her conscience.
The best way to fight corruption is to protect freedom of speech and the right to vote. Americans should be free to advocate for the policies they agree with and to support them with their vote. They should have the right to join groups and hire professionals to help put their beliefs into action.
Let’s stop labeling advocacy with which we disagree as a “special interest.” Let’s trust and encourage citizens to band together in groups to fight for their beliefs. Then, and only then, will we truly return power to the People.