Living with Lobbyists

“We are big, powerful and you had better listen to us” the large man said before he sat down in my office. His handshake told me he wasn’t kidding.

Today was lobbyist day. A day I limit to once a week, when I schedule visits with lobbyists. The list is long and the meetings tell me more about what’s wrong with government than what’s right.

Today my visitor and his friends represented two of the three large insurance groups. He never mentioned health care reform specifically, but his warning was clear. Don’t mess with the insurance industry. From his perspective, my ideas on making the health insurance system more efficient were not good ideas.

With more than six registered lobbyists for every legislator, it’s easy to see why things get done the way they do. Interest groups hire lobbyists to represent their members. Lobbyists follow the legislation the members can’t and try to influence the outcome. But, too frequently, the interest group itself invents the issue and attempts to bring it to a vote.

Let’s take seatbelts. Everybody knows seatbelts save lives. The insurance industry also wins if everyone wears a seatbelt. Their risk is lower and costs are lower. So the company thinks, why not bring together a group of people to encourage legislators to pass a law requiring law enforcement to stop everyone they see without a seatbelt. The law now states you cannot be stopped for a seatbelt violation unless there is also another reason to stop you.

It works like this: the lobbyist holds a meeting with legislators. They also invite many local people (who have a stake in the outcome of the lobbying). The local legislator sees the problem and supports the bill.

The meeting looks like a groundswell of support, but it is all a carefully executed plan from corporate headquarters; with a budget and a strategy that impacts the bottom line. If the lobbyist is successful, the industry benefits and government pays (that’s us, the taxpayer). In this case, local law enforcement now has a new job - stop everyone without a seatbelt; but no new money; and the insurance companies lower their risk and keep more of the dollars.

Not only companies hire lobbyists. Agencies and other branches of government try to influence legislators.

“You’re wrong on the smoking ban!” the governor’s liaison told the rookie senator. “And don’t mess with the insurance companies when you’re fixing health care.” That meeting came before the end of January.