Opinion

Sorry, Sen. Warren, but even lobbyists have rights

The hallways next to both the Senate and House chambers in Olympia are a buzz of activity as legislators, lobbyists and other interested parties converge during the legislative session. A similar scene plays out every day in Washington, D.C.
The hallways next to both the Senate and House chambers in Olympia are a buzz of activity as legislators, lobbyists and other interested parties converge during the legislative session. A similar scene plays out every day in Washington, D.C. News Tribune file photo, 2011

Lobbyists rank near the top of the list – or should we say the bottom of the swamp? – when it comes to the American public’s cynical assessment of the state and national political scene.

In fact, Gallup opinion polls consistently count lobbying among the least honest and ethical of all occupations, with 58 percent of respondents last year rating it “very low” or “low.” That’s much worse than lawyers, car salesmen and, yes, the news media.

Last month’s fraud convictions of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who made millions lobbying on behalf of foreign interests, including pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, certainly won’t change the unflattering narrative.

So a new proposal by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a tantalizing “drain the swamp” appeal. She wants to impose a lifetime lobbying ban on all former members of Congress, presidents, Cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs.

The Massachusetts Democrat has put her finger on a genuine problem; the revolving door between high government office holders and corporate influence peddlers swings too freely.

That’s true in Olympia as much as in Washington, D.C. Reasonable restrictions are overdue, such as requiring Washington state officials to abide by a “cooling off” period before lobbying their former co-workers. Several other states have laws to that effect, and the national Center for Public Integrity cited Washington’s revolving door as a “big ethical loophole” when it gave us an overall score of D+ a few years ago.

But anyone who cherishes the First Amendment should be wary of Warren’s meat-ax approach. Rather than a “cooling off” period, she wants a freezer full of carcasses.

Her sweeping bill includes other provocative elements, such as stopping the practice of lobbying on behalf of foreign interests, ala Manafort. She also aims to limit senior officials from owning and trading individual stock – a proposal that reflects her characteristic anti-Wall Street zeal.

When she unveiled the package last month, Warren touted it as “the most ambitious anti-corruption legislation proposed in Congress since Watergate.” Translation: Rather than any expectation it will become law, she’ll use it to underscore President Trump’s manifest weakness as a swamp drainer while she continues building her profile for a 2020 presidential run.

Some of Warren’s ideas are worth airing on the campaign trail. We like her call for elected leaders and candidates to disclose more financial and tax information.

To be sure, the cross-contamination between lobbyists and elected officials has polluted the democratic process and eroded public trust. Our leaders need to demonstrate who they really work for.

Still, Warren’s take-no-prisoners attitude gives us pause.

Bottom line: The right to petition the government is ascribed equal constitutional value alongside freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly. The Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that these liberties “are intimately connected, both in origin and purpose.” Americans can’t be denied one of these fundamental rights just because it enables them to collect a paycheck – whether journalist, clergy or K Street lobbyist.

Citizens shouldn’t be blocked from knocking on a congressman’s door, and government least of all should decide who’s worthy of knocking.

For proof, go back to the most recent Gallup poll and make note of the occupation that ranks worse than lobbyists on the trustworthiness scale.

Members of Congress, with a “very low/low” score of 60 percent.

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