Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren has unveiled sweeping plans to combat the growth and influence of federal lobbying. Her proposal would remove registration loopholes, ban federal contributions from federal lobbyists, and reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment, which previously helped Congress understand complicated science and technology matters before it was abolished by former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich. The senator would also prohibit lobbying for foreign governments.
Even if some of the tenets of her plan may not pass constitutional muster, there’s no question that it is a step in the right direction to meaningfully combat corruption in Washington.
As the former deputy governor of Illinois during the tenure of Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is now in prison, I know firsthand how corrosive crony politics can be. It was that highly publicized tale of corruption, among countless others, that continues to lead voters to believe that government no longer works for the people. Warren is smart to lean into this point, and I say this an active supporter of Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Already some states and local jurisdictions are tackling runaway lobbying head-on, and they are showing the potential behind the senator’s plan. In particular, New York serves as a great test case. The Empire State recently expanded strict lobbying regulations, which have changed the way my public affairs firm and others conduct our business. The new lobbying guardrails, coupled with a serious shift to the left in the city and state’s politics, mean it is no longer sufficient to hire a lobbyist who knows “a guy” who can fix whatever regulatory problem you have. This levels the political-influence playing field by forcing companies and prominent special interest groups to take their arguments to the public rather than strike backroom agreements.
Amazon’s decision to withdraw its proposed new headquarters in Queens is Exhibit A of failing to understand this new political dynamic at work. Despite the thousands of jobs it would have created in a historically underinvested neighborhood, the company relied too heavily on an inside game to try and force through their business objectives. This backfired because Amazon chose not to bother with community concerns, and grass-roots groups became their fiercest opponents overnight.
In addition, the senator’s proposal will also lead to a more vibrant American economy — something all corporate lobbyists should be able to get behind. For instance, many tech startups in regulated industries need an opportunity to explain to elected officials, regulators, and their constituents why they deserve a chance to gain whatever approvals or rule changes are necessary to grow their innovative business. But they often simply don’t get the chance — they don’t have the same resources to grease the wheels as major companies, whether that means giving giant donations to candidates or helping government employees cash out when they want to head to the private sector. In turn, their potentially transformative ideas are often pushed to the side and not taken seriously. This holds our economy back from being nimble, energetic, and fair, and it’s why Warren is right to think this process of federal policy-making is ripe for disruption.
But as the senator herself will tell you, her plan is not an anti-corruption panacea. While closing federal lobbying loopholes is a start, elected officials also need to expand their own accountability by broadening the right to vote and rejecting the practice of gerrymandered districts.
Still, closing federal lobbying loopholes is an incredibly important start. Ideas that challenge the status quo will finally have a real chance to make their voices heard by lawmakers and regulators in Washington. That in itself would be a victory for our democracy and economy and one that is worth fighting for.
Bradley Tusk is founder and CEO of Tusk Strategies and author of “The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics.”