In the three decades since he founded AU’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, Professor James Thurber has become known as one of the country’s leading experts on lobbying, a term that over those same 30 years has evolved into a bit of a dirty word.
Thurber, however, made clear his opinion of the profession and the people who execute it during his opening remarks at a Sept. 14 conference cosponsored by CCPS entitled “Undue Influence? Improving the Regulation of Lobbying.”
“I like lobbyists,” Thurber told the chuckling crowd, more than one of whom were lobbyists. “I think they’re good for our democracy. If you try to outlaw lobbying, it’s like outlawing gravity. We can’t do it. You can understand gravity by having more education about it, and you can understand lobbying by having more transparency.”
The conference’s opening panel was titled “What Is Lobbying and How Does it Affect Our Daily Lives.” That, in essence, is a major part of what Thurber and CCPS have been teaching AU students—and the public—for the past 30 years.
“The Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies is unquestionably one of SPA’s crown jewels,” School of Public Affairs dean William LeoGrande said as he opened the conference. “CCPS is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year—30 years during which it has organized hundreds of bipartisan forums and conferences on topics related to Congress, the presidency, campaigns, elections, and lobbying. It is a place that brings together academics, journalists, practitioners, students, and the public to discuss important issues facing our democracy. SPA takes special pride in this mission: developing new knowledge through research, testing that knowledge through interaction with practitioners, and bringing that knowledge to bear on urgent public issues of the day.”
Among those issues today is health care, and the impact special interests and lobbying are having on that debate was a major topic of conversation throughout the conference, held in downtown Washington at the Center for American Progress.
“I came to question the ethics of what I had done, influencing decision making and bill writing on Capitol Hill,” said panelist Wendell Potter, a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy who once was director of communications for Cigna, one of the nation’s largest health insurers. “The industry has been working for years to manipulate public opinion, and the industry goes to great lengths to keep its efforts from public view.”
Due in no small part to the health insurance industry’s public relations initiatives and lobbying efforts, Potter said he is decidedly less optimistic about the chances of health care reform legislation passing now than he was when President Obama first proposed it.
“What does this all mean for our country and democracy?” he said. “At a time when newsrooms are shrinking and investigative journalism seems to be vanishing, the clear winners are the big rich corporations and special interests. The losers are ordinary Americans who are unaware that their thoughts and actions are being manipulated to achieve corporate goals.”
Like Thurber, Robert Kaiser, associate editor at the Washington Post and author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of the American Government, said transparency is the key to lobbying reform.
“Let’s make every contact by lobbyists to politicians transparent,” he said. “When we make all this stuff highly visible, we can make an impact and help clean up the culture. Lobbying should be a viable First Amendment right. It is a fundamental American right that we have to protect.”