The Work and Ethics of Lobbyists
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Mike Berman is a lecturer at the American University's Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute. He's also president of The Duberstein Group, a lobbying firm in Washington, DC. He says the work most lobbyists do is well within ethical boundaries.
Mr. MIKE BERMAN (Lobbyist): We are advocates for various positions that our clients want to take before the Congress. And we may do that to assist--in some cases there's a Washington office, which is other folks, like, doing the same thing we do and we assist them or, in other cases, in situations when they have no office in Washington, and we're the sole representative.
NORRIS: And do you do that by meeting with them? By courting them? How do you get your phone calls answered?
Mr. BERMAN: Well, in my particular case, I've been here a very, very long time, done a lot of Democratic politics. I lobby on the Democratic side, and so I happen to know a lot of people through politics. But as often as not, you can go into an office blind in the sense that--various member--if the member is on the finance committee and he'll have staff persons who are specifically working on a particular issue that we may have an interest in. So you can call in blind and say, `Look, I represent XYZ Company, and we'd like to talk to you about this particular provision. Can we do so? Can we send you some paper in advance? Glad to answer any of your questions.' Sometimes that conversation occurs only on the telephone. Increasingly, it occurs through e-mail. On the rarest of occasions do you actually spend much time with the members themselves. More often it's with the staff experts on the particular issue.
NORRIS: Now in the case of full disclosure, I should say that my husband is an attorney and a registered lobbyist. So I know a little bit about this. I certainly hear about it at home.
Help us understand the culture of lobbying in Washington. It's a city where at 6:30 on any given evening the restaurants and the bars and the hotels are often filled with people clinking glasses at something called a fund-raiser. How do these things work?
Mr. BERMAN: I don't happen to go to very many anymore just because of my advanced age, to some extent. But basically the members are raising money for their campaigns. It's a time-honored thing. It's been going on for the some 40 years that I've been around Washington, and you get an invitation and you decide to go. You show up at the given time. Sometimes there's two or three in a given evening you might attend where you have sent in usually a contribution in advance. And you have a piece of stale cheese and perhaps a glass of wine or a soft drink. You probably say hello to the member and you move on to the next one. They are kind of social occasions and, as often as not, you might spend time talking to other colleagues in the business.
NORRIS: And are these fund-raisers, are they targeting voters or constituents, or is it a room mainly filled with lobbyists? If a lawmaker held a fund-raiser...
Mr. BERMAN: Here in town they're mainly filled with lobbyists.
NORRIS: OK. So if the lobbyists didn't show up, the room would basically be empty.
Mr. BERMAN: Exactly.
NORRIS: The current lobbying scandal that's making headlines involves a group of individuals and a specific firm, but this has cast a shadow over the entire industry. How much does this concern you?
Mr. BERMAN: Not very much in the long run.
NORRIS: In the long run.
Mr. BERMAN: In the long run...
NORRIS: Any heartburn in the short run?
Mr. BERMAN: A little bit. I mean, I'm thinking about what to say to my students on Thursday, and what are the lessons of this particular circumstance that we're all reading about? And I have decided to start by saying, there are no lessons because this particular set of circumstances is so far over the top in terms of what ordinary practices. This group of people simply set out to break all the laws and break all the rules. It was not by accident. It was not somebody stumbling by paying $55 for a lunch when you could only pay $49.99. They intended to break the law. They intended to influence people by these various largesse of trips to Scotland or wherever you may be going, by making contributions, by providing space for events whether in restaurants or in sky boxes at athletic contests. So if a person intends to break the law, pretty hard to ever stop until you catch them.
NORRIS: And, Mr. Berman, for those who believe that lobbying in general has a certain odor to it, how do you defend what you do?
Mr. BERMAN: I defend it because I'm just comfortable with it. I mean, I think I'm a pretty ethical person. There's been lobbying--if you think about the people that have lobbied this Congress over the years, it's always been part of the system. You know, FBI agents lobbying the White House because they didn't like pardons that were going to be given. I remember a young man that I met in the District of Columbia who, at the age of 13, began, quote, unquote, "lobbying" full time to get statehood for the District of Columbia. And he by himself went from--obviously he wasn't successful--went from office to office and always got heard out because when this 13-year-old showed up, people were--found it interesting.
NORRIS: But there are also former lawmakers who wind up on the other side of Washington...
Mr. BERMAN: Naturally.
NORRIS: ...working on K Street lobbying their former members. And you say, you know, it's always been done, that doesn't sound like the strongest defense.
Mr. BERMAN: Well, it is the only defense that I know of, quite frankly. The advocacy of positions on behalf of people in the country before the Congress is as much a part of free speech, I believe, as what we're doing here on NPR. It's actually the same provision of the Constitution that provides for the right to petition the government, grants the free speech to the press.
NORRIS: Mike Berman, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.
Mr. BERMAN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
NORRIS: Mike Berman is a lobbyist and president of The Duberstein Group. He's also a lecturer and a mentor at American University's Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute.
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.