By John Mielke
Give money and receive political favors; the bigger the gift, the bigger the favor.
This is the narrative people hear, and it reinforces their cynical view of politics. And cynicism is the stock in trade of government critics.
This especially is true during a campaign when it’s popular for political operatives and watchdogs to drag out otherwise mundane topics as evidence that a candidate is on the take. They weave twisting tales, leading voters to conjure images of politicians, influenced by lobbyists wielding bags of money, conspiring to do the work of special-interest groups at the expense of the people.
It’s a sensational story. But, at least in my experience, it’s not true.
In a typical session there are about 1,800 bills introduced. Only a few of those are big enough to attract the interest of the electorate.
When that happens, special-interest groups, even big-spending special interests, on the wrong side of public sentiment normally don’t fare well. I never have witnessed a lawmaker, even in a smoked-filled room, choose the interest of a big contributor over the clear and expressed will of the constituents. I often have seen the opposite.
The truth is the vast majority of those 1,800 proposals is much more mundane and affects only a small group of people, a particular industry or, dare I say it, a special interest. These mundane proposals are the realm of most lobbyists. The bills lobbyists work on are important to those they represent, but not to the plurality of voters in the home district.
In my experience, lobbyists are not evil puppet masters, even if some wish they were. They are advocates for small businesses, hunters, midwives and others who have neither the time nor the means to monitor thousands of proposals a year. So those groups form associations that do the work for the individuals.
The lobbyists for these groups provide valuable information to well-meaning policymakers who are trying to make informed decisions.
Seriously, is a law letting billboard owners clear away brush from in front of their signs really a “special interest giveaway?” Or is it just a reasonable request from advertisers who want people to see their signs?
Are legislators who support a provision to let the length of two-vehicle trucks increase from 65 feet to 70 feet really in the pocket of the trucking industry? Or is there a more practical, albeit less sensational, explanation?
Lawmaking means making decisions. Hopefully, those decisions will be well-reasoned and balanced.
But even well-reasoned decisions invariably favor someone or some group. If it were not so, there would be no impetus to change the law in the first place.
Is there undue influence in politics? Sure. Is it typical? Not even close.
Sometimes laws pass because they are just good ideas even when they are supported by a special interest. So let’s ease up on the cynicism and save our outrage for those times when it’s really warranted.
John Mielke is the vice president of the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc.