Lobbying Allows Americans to Exercise Their Constitutional Rights | Opinion

Greenpeace—an environmental advocacy organization—recently had one of its staffers pose as a recruitment consultant in a virtual interview with top lobbyists for a Fortune 500 company. It released the filmed conversation to the public and later appeared to take credit for "unearthing" the company's use of "cynical, aggressive lobbying techniques to pull the strings of government."

How did Greenpeace do it? By getting one of the lobbyists to admit that he talks to moderate Democrats about issues that the company he represents cares about frequently—in some cases, every week—to move legislation in this divided Congress.

Wow. Stop the presses!

I don't have any knowledge of the corporation in question's lobbying operations, so I can't comment on its operational practices specifically. However, as a former member of Congress, I can speak to how absurd it is that so many advocacy organizations and reporters have misused this fake interview to claim that lobbying categorically tilts the political playing field in favor of corporate America. This is simply not the case.

Far from an unchecked tool for "dark money" interests, lobbying serves a necessary purpose in U.S. politics—one that the Founding Fathers deliberately allowed—and helps to increase lawmakers' awareness and understanding of underrepresented perspectives and complex policy issues. That's why everyone, from charities to social justice organizations, utilizes them as a means of exercising their First Amendment right to petition the government. And yes, this includes Greenpeace, which has two registered lobbyists of its own.

It's no secret that our elected officials aren't experts in everything. It's hard for them to even stay on top of the issues that flow through the committees they sit on.

During my time in Congress, I served on four House committees and 10 subcommittees. Each one weighed scores of bills every session—some thousands of pages long. To say it was challenging to tackle and absorb each of these pieces of legislation, on top of the ones that made it to the House floor, would be an understatement.

Congressional offices are often very short staffed. Most legislative staffers handle a portfolio of two to five separate issues. Many lobbyists are former staffers themselves, and they know that asking one staffer to understand the nuances of every issue in their portfolio is challenging. That's where lobbyists come in.

U.S. Capitol building
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 01: The U.S. Capitol Building is seen on August 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress is working to come to an agreement to pass U.S. President Joe Biden's proposed infrastructure bill before they head into their August recess on the 9th. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

As a member, I heard from lobbyists representing everyone from energy companies to veterans' rights groups and every charity in the book. Sometimes, they reaffirmed my existing beliefs. Other times, they reshaped my perspective on different pieces of legislation, amendments and bill provisions by explaining how some of my colleagues' shrewd wordsmithing, while appearing innocent to the casual observer, would in reality allow various interest groups to weaponize the government against taxpayers or their competitors for self-serving purposes.

Perhaps most significantly, lobbyists changed my mind on one crucial public policy issue: foreign aid.

As a fiscal conservative and a Tea Partier, I went to Washington planning to zero out foreign aid. However, after speaking to lobbyists from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and various farm groups, I changed my mind on Food for Peace, a service provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development that purchases and donates food from American farmers to needy families around the world. I learned that the program works, not just for the poor around the world, but also as a useful U.S. foreign policy tool and in leveling the competitive playing field for my fellow U.S. farmers. They often find themselves competing with heavily government-subsidized competitors in adversarial nations, and Food for Peace helps to limit the damage. Thanks to the insights shared with me from these lobbyists, I became a supporter of the program, voted for it during the appropriations process and pushed for it to remain part of the larger farm bill.

Sure, big corporate lobbyists are easy to villainize, but it isn't just big corporations that benefit from these types of services. Lobbying presents a unique opportunity for marginalized and lesser-known groups to have their voices heard. Without it, the chances for the concerns of these groups to come to the forefront of lawmakers' minds would be slim to none.

It's not uncommon for the concerns of small interest groups to be buried in the middle of a hundred-page plus piece of legislation. The main goals of most lobbyists are to make their clients' concerns digestible and bring them to the forefront. Whether through educational memos or getting their clients' foot in the door, lobbying provides these groups with the facetime and access they need. From simple issues like requesting more funding for public school education all the way up to complex ones, lobbying provides opportunities to groups both big and small.

It's time to stop castigating lobbying as just a political manipulation tactic and start looking at it as a tool for better educating legislators on issues that actually matter to their constituencies. Without it, lawmakers would likely vote along strict party lines, taking direction only from their respective leadership, rather than taking the time and effort to understand why certain groups and constituents believe certain proposals would harm or better their communities. Is that really what anyone wants?

Tim Huelskamp, Ph.D., served as the U.S. Representative for Kansas's First congressional district from 2011 to 2017.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.