Lobbying For The Good Ones

Susan Page
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Wednesday - January 25, 2006
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I called my daughter Joy to ask about the coal mining disaster in West Virginia, and the first thing she said was, “Mom, don’t worry, most lobbyists aren’t anything remotely like Jack Abramoff. I don’t have a big expense account.”

Her words sidetracked me a bit. But, of course, all over the news is the corrupt lobbyist story that tends to make all in the profession look bad.

So, instead of my original column topic on energy, coal mining and what we’re doing to keep pace with ever-increasing energy demands, I’m writing about lobbyists.

You probably gathered that my daughter is a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

But before you picture her flying members of Congress off to Scotland in a private jet to play golf, let me elaborate. She’s the director of legislative affairs for the American Public Power Association (APPA), the non-profit, non-partisan service organization whose members are the more than 2,000 community-owned electric utilities; for example, the cities of Los Angeles, Sacramento, Austin, Texas, and other large and small towns and municipalities across the land.

Her job is to be an expert in energy (electricity mostly) issues, especially as they relate to legislation which might impact her membership. She and the lobbyists who work under her in turn lobby Congress about the association’s needs and concerns. In other words, they educate. She mostly confers with staffers who then brief their bosses on why a certain regulation might negatively impact, say Seattle or Manassas,Va. Sometimes she organizes receptions after work, generally attended by staffers.

Lobbyists are frequently portrayed as schmoozing arm-twisters who get their way by bribing with lavish gifts or first-class trips, but in reality most lobbyists are there to provide education, perspective and compelling arguments as to why Congress - or a state legislature - should pass a certain law or include something specific in an existing piece of legislation. Every industry and special interest has them, and they provide an important service. They represent your interests to your representatives.

Actually, lobbying is a First Amendment-protected right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That’s why we will always have them. We need them.

And, remember, lobbyists come in many forms, some not officially holding down a full-time lobbyist job like Joy does.

For example, Gov. Lingle, Lt. Gov. Aiona and trustees from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) have taken trips to Washington to lobby senators in behalf of the Akaka Bill.

Despite the temptation to take the “throw the baby out with the bathwater” approach to defining guilt, Jack Abramoff and those he corrupted in Congress are the story here, not lobbyists. He defrauded Indian tribes, conspired to bribe a public official and didn’t pay taxes. He’s a crook, plain and simple. And the members of Congress who succumbed to his gifts and trips? All I can say is, what were they thinking?

As Joy says, a lobbyist’s job is building trust through honesty, integrity, legitimacy and knowing the facts. Jack Abramoff failed.

Despite the fact that ethics laws have been in place since the 1950s and the Lobbying Disclosure Act was enacted in 1995, wherever money and power reside, there is potential for corruption. Still, it’s important to take a deep breath amidst the media and partisan feeding frenzy and remember that for every Jack Abramoff there are thousands of decent, ethical lobbyists who represent the elderly, the poor, farmers, the environment, teachers - and even cities that buy their own electricity.

(I guess I’m lobbying for lobbyists.)

There are 38,324 registered lobbyists in the U.S., and 264 live in Hawaii. There are four lobbyists to every one state legislator, and are employed by 291 Hawaii organizations. Hawaiian Electric employs 19 of those, which bring us back to energy, electricity and my original column idea which will be for another week.

I need my own lobbyist to keep me on message.

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