Lobbying isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It has legitimate roots in the need to educate policy makers on issues facing the people. Under modern interpretations of the Constitution, lobbying has long been considered free speech, a position that's not likely to change anytime soon. After all, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lobbying is simply "a citizen's right to speak freely, to impact decisions, and petition the government."
To guard against possible abuses, lobbying is tightly regulated. Lobbyists have to register and disclose their clients and meetings on the Hill. The legality and regulation of lobbying speaks to our fundamental right as citizens to educate our representatives about issues that concern us. But its intent has been muddied by our dislike of its employers and their priorities.
While we all have a right to educate our legislatures, the reality is it takes time and money that most Americans simply do not have. In 2014, corporations and other special interests spent $3.24 billion dollars lobbying federal government officials. If you want to know how Americans feel about lobbying, look no further than the 2013 Gallup poll which showed only about 6 percent of Americans view lobbyists as honest or ethical. Ouch.
But lobbying can achieve good things.
Lobbying can be done right if it is done honestly, transparently, and for the people. Take, for example, the percent funding boost the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received in 2011, with $39M going to a new food and safety program. When most agencies saw their budgets crushed, professional lobbyists from the food industry were momentarily aligned with consumer protection groups. The food industry wanted stricter industry-wide standards and increased inspections of food processing plants and farms to help avoid high profile recalls that destroy global consumer confidence and with it, sales. Consumer advocates wanted the tougher standards to better protect shoppers against food-borne illnesses and to keep the food industry accountable. As reported in the Washington Post, Erik Olsen, Director of Food Programs at the Pew Health Group said, "Having consumers who were directly affected by food-borne illnesses standing shoulder to shoulder with the food industry sent a powerful message." Two unlikely allies came together to impact decisions, and petition the government. This is good lobbying.
Historically, campaign finance meant giving money directly to campaigns or Political Action Committees (PACs) who could spend that money on travel, advertisement or other campaign-related expenses. The now infamous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 overturned some of the McCain-Feingold Act, making it legal for private organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political activity--such as running TV ads to promote or attack specific candidates. Now known as Super PACs, these organizations can raise unlimited amounts of money and keep their funding sources secret, whether they be individuals, corporations or unions.
The birth of the Super PAC era has dramatically increased the cost of a successful campaign and, consequently, has put incredible strains on publicly elected officials, who now spend an estimated 50 percent of their time raising money. With more time focused on fundraising, elected officials are left with less time to educate themselves on issues facing regular Americans and businesses. Consequently, they are increasingly reliant on lobbyists who do everything from inform voting decisions to draft legislation.
The problem is not lobbying. The problem is who has lobbyists.
Given the outsized role that lobbyists play in shaping public policy and influencing elected officials, it is time Young Americans recognize and embrace lobbying as a powerful and necessary tool for participating in our government.
That's why I've founded the Association of Young Americans (AYA), a membership-based organization that lobbies government bodies and negotiates benefits on behalf of the 80 million Americans between 18 and 35. As a young person myself, I am tired of seeing my government ignore issues that make the world harder for my peers and me to live in: the student debt crisis and the soaring cost of education, extreme biases in the criminal justice system, and the endemic of big money in political campaigns.
At AYA, our mission is to advocate for the issues that matter most to young Americans through active lobbying of elected officials. AYA will work to bring energy, attention, and resources to these major issues.
We're not going to have powerhouse lobbying tomorrow, but we'll get there with your help. Join us on the ground floor at joinaya.com, where you can learn more, become a member, and start taking advantage of our exclusive deals. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to join the millions of young Americans who are ready to be heard.
Imagine the power of 80 million young Americans. Together, we can reshape American politics, and with it, our future.
This post originally appeared on the blog of Association of Young Americans