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Lee Hamilton '52 Offers Thoughts on Moderating the Influence of Lobbyists

October 18, 2011

7485October 18, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — "There is a fundamental question raised by lobbying of the Congress. It is this: Can we temper its excesses without destroying its usefulness as a valued component of the system?," asks Lee Hamilton, former congressman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University, in a newspaper op-ed.  

With approximately 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington spending an annual $3.5 billion, they have "a direct impact not only on how members of Congress look at issues, but also on what issues they decide to look at in the first place. I don't think it's a stretch to say that it can skew what takes place on Capitol Hill toward the interests of those who can provide this money, and away from those who cannot."  

But Hamilton warns, "Yet lobbyists are also indispensable to lawmaking. Most are principled people who know that their word is their bond. When done well, lobbying helps the governing process work. The best of its practitioners know that what lawmakers need is information -- 89666straightforward, understandable, and accurate. Lobbyists help members of Congress understand the issues before them and gauge how a given piece of legislation will affect the various constituencies affected by it. Members of Congress are so pressed for time and confronted by so many varied matters of importance that they have no choice but to rely on lobbyists to help them sort out both the facts and the consequences of the decisions they have to make."

The Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and later co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group says safeguards are needed to ensure the voices (and dollars) of lobbying groups don't drown out the interests of ordinary Americans. Hamilton writes, "One important measure that could be put in place immediately would be complete, real-time disclosure of lobbying contacts with legislators and regulators. There are no technical reasons this can't be done, only the objections of politicians. The more sunlight on the process, the more the voters will know about lobbyists and the issues they advocate. I'd even go further: I favor the fairly radical steps of prohibiting members of Congress from accepting contributions from firms that lobby them, and banning lobbyists from contributing to members they lobby. As reformers argue, it's fine for lobbyists to plead63887 their case, but they shouldn't be able to pay off the jury. I'm not so naive as to believe that either of these measures will pass anytime soon -- or perhaps ever."

Hamilton concludes, "I believe a big part of the answer lies with individual members of Congress and with the American people. Members have the ultimate responsibility to assess and judge a lobbyist: where he comes from, for whom he speaks, what his interests are. They also need to ask themselves how much they're influenced by the campaign contributions they receive and whether they are giving careful consideration to all sides on any given policy issue, including how the policy might affect ordinary Americans. Similarly, we all have to step up as Americans and engage actively with our legislators. The more vigorous the conversation between our elected representatives and their constituents, the less of a hold lobbyists will enjoy."

Access the complete essay at the website of Salem, Oregon's Statesman Journal.

Now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, Lee H. Hamilton was recently appointed co-chair of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission. On March 15, he returned to DePauw to deliver a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture.  A summary including video clips can be accessed here.

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