Early in 2016, when Bernie Sanders’ campaign was raising enormous amounts in small-dollar donations, it hit me that ordinary people are absolutely willing to invest their hard-earned money in political goals they believe in. Living in Washington, DC, and being surrounded by lobbyists, a lightbulb went off: if ordinary people were willing to put such large amounts of money into Bernie, maybe they’d be willing to spend some money on lobbying for those same policies also! Crowdfunding and the internet should make it possible to hire lobbyists!
Lobbyists for the people!
I know, I know, lobbyists? Ugh. Even the word is apt to make you cringe. Lobbyists seem to represent everything wrong with politics today. Why add to the problem?
Well, let’s start by acknowledging there’s nothing inherently bad about lobbying. Indeed, we’ve been doing a lot of it lately — each time we call our representatives, urging them to support or oppose a bill, that is, by definition, lobbying. And that is right and good. Indeed, our right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is right there in the First Amendment!
The problem is that for decades, one segment of society has been exercising this right much more effectively than the rest of us: big business and corporations.
The history behind this is fascinating. People who have studied it have pointed to the influence of a confidential memorandum written by attorney Lewis F. Powell, Jr. in 1971. (Powell was a corporate lawyer who became a Supreme Court justice in 1972.)
In a section that is almost absurd to read today, the “Powell Memorandum” argued:
“Few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American business, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of ‘lobbyist’ for the business point of view before Congressional Committees... One does not exaggerate to say that, in terms of political influence with respect to the course of legislation and government action, the American business executive is truly the ‘forgotten man.’”
Imagine, the American business executive as the forgotten man!
To remedy that state of affairs, Powell argued:
“Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination.”
Forty-some years later, it’s clear that the Powell Memorandum was a resounding success. Today, the “lobbyist for the business point of view” is decidedly not the put-upon, powerless, “forgotten man” portrayed by Powell. Instead, big business and corporations have heeded his call to “assiduously cultivate” political power, and to use that power “aggressively and with determination.” They’ve done this in large part by hiring “lobbyists for the business point of view.” And, as anyone with a pulse can see, this effort has been enormously successful. Professional lobbyists working on behalf of corporate interests are a mainstay of American political life.
But wait, you say, doesn’t that just show that professional lobbyists are part of the problem? Why should I contribute to that problem?
I think the answer to that is, unless we want to ban professional lobbying entirely, which we probably can’t given the First Amendment, the better strategy — and possibly the only effective strategy — is to use professional lobbying to our advantage.
Forget the word “lobbyist” for a minute, and replace it with “lawyer.” (It’s not a stretch — many of the top lobbying firms are law firms like Akin Gumpor Squire Patton Boggs, and many lawyers work as lobbyists.)
Lobbyists are professionals. Big business and corporations pay them handsomely to advance their interests. And so corporate lawyers spend 10, 12, 14 hours a day or more mastering the facts, issues, and arguments that will help their clients get a desired legal outcome. I know this world well — I’m a lawyer who used to work at a firm that did a lot of this kind of work. (Much of the work wasn’t particularly gratifying, but with hundreds of thousands in student loan debt, it was hard to resist.)
But if you have been harmed by a huge corporation’s misconduct, how can you possibly fight back effectively, given their armies of lawyers? Well, sometimes, the best thing you can do is you hire a damn good lawyer of your own. I know this world also — today, I work at a firm that does this kind of work. (It pays somewhat less than the other side, and it’s still a lot of work — the other side has good lawyers and a lot more of them. But it’s far more rewarding.)
Now, read the last two paragraphs, but replace “lawyer” with “lobbyist” and “legal” with “political.” That’s what this idea is all about: giving ordinary people a way go toe-to-toe with big business and corporations in the halls of power.
But wait! Wouldn’t it be a better use of our money to just get the good politicians elected, the ones who won’t be swayed by corporate lobbying in the first place? Perhaps. But here’s the reality of policy-making and legislation: it’s damn hard. Even the best-intentioned politician is not going to have the time, resources, or staffing to master all the intricacies of the financial sector, the energy sector, health care policy, education policy, and so forth. That’s one reason corporate lobbyists are so successful. They do the time-consuming research, craft the arguments and talking points, and offer up the fruit of their efforts to busy politicians in a slick, professional package. They’ll even write the actual law. And because politicians are so pressed for time, many welcome these efforts.
So even if we get the good politicians elected, they are going to be relentlessly lobbied by big business and corporations. And when that happens, ordinary people will need professionals on their side — to help propose draft legislation, to make high-quality arguments and presentations, to attend the sub-sub-sub-subcommittee hearings scheduled on a random Tuesday afternoon, and to generally make the good politicians’ jobs easier. Otherwise, the good politicians will be overwhelmed.
What about existing non-profits? Well, many aren’t actually allowed to do much lobbying (if they’re 501(c)(3) non-profits). As for the ones that are allowed to lobby, corporations are running circles around them, including by being able to recruit more lobbying talent. Imagine if the only lawyers we could hire to litigate against corporate law firms worked in non-profits. However heroic non-profit lawyers may be — and they are often heroic — the resource imbalance would be just too great. So too, I think, with lobbyists.
Now, back to the story I started with.
After that lightbulb moment, I was burning to make my idea a reality. But work and life slowed things down. Still, I kept coming back to it, and did some more research. I saw that others had had the idea of a professional “lobbyist for the people” or “crowdfunded lobbying.”
But it didn’t seem like those efforts had amounted to much, except in the case of Amplifyd, which was a fascinating idea, but not what I’d been thinking of. (As of this writing, Amplifyd’s website is down.)
That’s where this story takes a serendipitous turn. Early this year, as I continued to poke around, I stumbled across a website with an intriguing name: Lobbyists 4 Good. As I read through it, I realized, this is almost exactly my idea: a crowdfunded lobbying site that hires actual, experienced lobbyists. There was even a dollar limit on contributions to ensure campaigns were driven by broad-based support — something I had wanted to implement!
But the truth was, Lobbyists 4 Good was better than my idea, because it was real: here was an actual website, with real campaigns, that had gotten enough small-dollar donations to actually hire lobbyists to work them!
I might’ve felt a bit envious, but what I actually felt was relief. Now, I didn’t have to spend my nights and weekends pursuing my idea, or, if work or life kept getting in the way, wonder what might have been.
I immediately contributed $27 to the campaign I liked — it had to do with policies to advance democracy — and sent a note to the organization’s founder, Billy DeLancey. We met for coffee, he taught me some of the nitty gritty of how lobbying works, and we kept in touch by email. Then, he suggested I write something to help advance the idea of crowdfunded lobbying, which was something I’d wanted to do for some time anyway. This piece is the result.
(Full disclosure: during our coffee meeting, Billy mentioned that Lobbyists 4 Good was looking for board members, and I submitted my resume. It’s an unpaid position. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I’m writing this regardless of what happens — I genuinely believe in the idea.)
Today, Lobbyists 4 Good is just over a year old, and has steadily been improving its model. The latest update came this week: you can now start your own campaign! Each campaign’s goal is to raise $5,000, the cost of hiring a professional lobbyist for a month. This sounds like a lot, but corporations routinely pay this much or even more. If many of us come together to match these efforts, that’ll start putting power back into the hands of ordinary people.
In my view, Lobbyists 4 Good is an idea whose time has come. Put simply, ordinary people have been vastly outgunned in Washington, DC, by big business and massive corporations for too long. Lobbyists 4 Good gives ordinary people the ability to effectively fight back.
Times Wang was one of Lobbyists 4 Good's earliest supporters and is currently serving on the Board of Directors. His post above appeared in Medium on March 9th and was reposted here with his permission.