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Wouldn’t you love it if you could put fifty bucks into the stock market and pretty reliably expect a return of $10,000–every year. That’s the approximate value of any investment in the Office of Public Counsel, which defends consumers in utility rate cases and lobbies legislators every time utilities get some Republican stooge to file their latest godawful idea for a bill. But trust me, the utilities don’t make it easy for the OPC to get consumers an even break. They take advantage of all the spare cash lying around in their fat bank accounts–money we gave them–not only to hire a raft of lawyers to plead their cause in rate cases but also to contribute to campaigns and–here’s the point I want to focus on–to hire top flight lobbyists.

Corporate lobbyists might seem like the lesser of two evils when democracy is being hijacked by campaign contributors, but in fact lobbying is sometimes more of a threat to the public interest. And that fact holds true whether we’re talking about bills that benefit utilities, bills that stave off lawsuits against Tyson and Premium Standard Farms, or bills about any high stakes legislation. I mean, who are you more likely to go out of your way to please: an ATM that forked over the cash for last night’s dinner at a pricey restaurant or a friend of yours who always treats? Admittedly, you wouldn’t want that ATM card snatched away, so of course we know that campaign contributors do have their sway over legislators. But I still remember calling Sen. Jeff Smith three years ago to ask why he had accepted $9750 from a Rex Sinquefield shell committee pushing vouchers.  Smith pointed out that the week after taking the money, he had deep sixed a pro-voucher nominee for the state Board of Education. He had no qualms about putting a finger in his donor’s eye.

Indeed, Sinquefield has spread millions around and knows that such rude ingratitude will be fairly common. He has sunk a fortune into campaign contributions without so far getting the lege to do any serious legwork at getting his (un)Fair Tax adopted. He may not be loved, but he persists.

The best lobbyists, though, have an emotional connection with the legislators they cultivate, a hook that no “Pay to the order of” piece of paper can match. It isn’t just that they’re intelligent and can persuasively argue their case–though that certainly is true. It’s that, in the case of high profile bills, lobbyists are hired to match particular legislators. They’re charming, sure, but they’re so much more than merely hail fellows well met. They likely share the same interests as the legislators they target. Perhaps they like the same music and know instinctively which concert tickets will be gladly accepted. Or if a state rep loves baseball, she’ll find herself befriended by a good-natured baseball fan–who happens to know a lot about a particular issue that she will be voting on. And the lobbyist will be feeding her that info along with filet mignon before a ball game he bought the tickets to.

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Term limits are the lobbyist’s friend, for a new rep or senator will have had less time to acquaint herself with the intricacies of, say, utility regulation than someone who, in the old days, might have been around Jeff City for twenty years or more and become expert on the topic. The lobbyist stands ready, eager, to fill in those gaps in her knowledge. And she may not immediately cotton on to the reason she has hit it off so well with this particular habitue of the capitol. Given time, she might well learn to keep some distance between herself and lobbyists. But if, at the start of what must be a relatively short career in the legislature, she doesn’t foresee the need for that, then vote time comes, and it’s tough to disappoint her friend.

She never set out to choose moneyed interests above her constituents. It’s not like that at all. She saw nothing sinister in listening to a lobbyist argue his case and was pleasantly surprised to find herself enjoying his company so much. And if she was the least bit conflicted about which way she ought to vote, the deciding factor might be the guilt of betraying her friend.

Because in the end, campaign contributors are numbers on a spreadsheet. Lobbyists are people you like.

Photo courtesy of SEIU on Flickr