Free speech would be easy if it only applied to popular people saying popular things. But that's not the case. Our First Amendment protections are most urgent and fragile when they apply to the unpopular, the dissident, and the public villain of the day. Which brings me to lobbyists.
It's easy to dislike lobbyists. (Full disclosure: I happen to be one. Here's a link to my public registration.) Politicians vilify them, blame them for lots that is wrong in Washington, many times justified. Crooks like Jack Abramoff and the occasional bribe-taking Congressman smear the profession. The public hates inside influence-peddling, sees the potential for abuse, and insists on limits. So, as a lobbyist, I am happy to be regulated, and I'm ready to comply with all the disclosures of clients, contacts, and interests, and don't even mind the political pokes.
But the latest missive from President Obama's White House, a Memorandum dated March 20, 2009 on "Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds," is a literal gag order to be carried out by Federal agency officials. It truly crosses the line.
Let's be clear. Lobbying is not a social evil. It is a public good protected by the First Amendment -- both as "freedom of speech" and as the right of the people "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." By recent count, there are over 50,000 registered lobbyists representing a dizzying range of causes and interests, from good government and safe drugs to individual corporations and local governments. Bad actors aside (see Joseph Keppler's classic view, "The Bosses of the Senate," above), they keep Congress informed, give groups around the country an effective voice, and engage in public discourse essential to decision-making in a democracy.
In modern Washington, a competent lobbyist is as essential to navigating the complex maze of bureaucracy and politics as a competent lawyer or accountant is to any individual trying to run a business, buy a home, or file their taxes. Denying people access to a lobbyist amounts to stripping them of their voice.
And that's precisely what the new Obama memo does. In so many words, it requres agency officials, in any meeting or phone call regarding the Stimulus Package, to tell any lobbyist in the room or on the call to get out, hang up, or shut up -- "the lobbyist may not attend [the meeting] or participate in the telephonic or in-person contact, but may submit a communication in writing." (See Section 3(b))
Message to the public? When it comes to seeking Stimulus Package funds, you are on your own. You are denied representation. You have no right to have someone speak for you. The impact? Big corporations, with high-paid, experienced advocates on their payrolls as officers or in-house staff (not subject to any rules on lobbying), will easily roll over any small business that gets in the way.
This is overkill, taking a popular concept and extending it to a destructive conclusion. I hope the Obama White House will re-think it. To my mind, even speaking as a lobbyist, change is still good.