Democracy, Divides and (not so) Deep Pockets

Recently, as I was pillaging my husband’s stack of political magazines, I started flipping through a copy of Roll Call, a publication that has covered the happenings on Capitol Hill since the 1950’s. Nestled on Page A-12, I found an article about YouLobby, a website launching in October that “seeks to help the public hire lobbyists.” When I first saw the headline, I thought the idea sounded like a great means to spread democracy and provide the “little man” with the means to access a piece of the proverbial pie of political power. Interesting.

From the article, I learned that the main idea of YouLobby is to provide a forum for non-profits to aggregate with other non-profits and pool resources to hire K Street lobbyists. The target groups are allegedly non-profits that would not be able to afford a lobbyist on their own. The creators of YouLobby have the vision that a citizen can use the site to “start an advocacy campaign, solicit donations, and hire a professional lobbyist.”

flickr photo by roberthuffstutter

As citizens of the United States, one of the protections guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights is the Right to Petition the Government. While the Right to Petition is certainly not as “hot” of a topic as, say, the Freedom of Speech, it is certainly relevant in any discussion of democracy, as it is the provision that allows citizens try to influence the government to pass laws to redress citizen concerns: Advocacy organizations and Lobbyists, anyone?

Which raises some questions that have been nagging at me off at on for years, especially since I moved to Washington: How did it get to the point where the average citizen needs to have access to deep pockets to be heard by the government? Sure, anyone can write a letter to Congress, but most political folks know that the “work” really gets done among closely knit networks of politicians and lobbyists. Is that really what our forefathers intended when they individual rights and liberties?

flickr photo by Toban Black

And here’s the kicker: the article states that lobbyist fees run from approximately $5,000 to $10,000 per month! One has to wonder how many non-profits could support such types of costs (even when pooled with others), especially knowing that a resolution could take months, or even years. It’s a lot to think about, especially the portion of the article that states that lobbying firms will not be required to provide a phone number to clients they receive through YouLobby. Instead, they will be held “accountable” through a blog on which they regularly post.

As I read on, I started thinking: How much does a site like YouLobby really spread democracy and give a voice to non-profits and other “little men”? After all, the people talking about YouLobby are readers of Roll Call, right? And it follows that these readers would be political elites, educated legislative aides, and people who are already in the political “mix.” In fact, cursory search of Google News over the past month showed that Roll Call the only publication writing about YouLobby.

So who is the real audience here? It looks to me like the organization is really targeting the Congressional networks in Washington with the hopes that Congressmen will take the message about YouLobby back to their constituents or leverage the service themselves through the straw man political organizations that are so common these days. I guess the proof will be in the political pudding when the site launches next month.

Anne Bennett Cook Smithson

Anne-Bennett is a former CCT Graduate Student.

  • Anonymous

    As a former hill staffer I like your blog on this topic, and have been thinking a lot lately about Americans’ civic engagement and voice. On one hand, contacting your representative in Congress might be documented in a numerical sense, but your voice is nearly inaudible unless significant funds in the form of campaign donations are the megaphone through which you speak. It sounds like YouLobby will likely be an extension of the current commentary climate.

  • Christopher Litton

    As the founder and CEO of YouLobby.com, I appreciate you taking the time to explore the concept of our new site. I believe that part of the concept has been lost in translation. YouLobby is designed to serve individuals and not organizations.

    I have spent nearly 20 years as a lobbyist and during that time, I searched for a way to serve those Americans who couldn’t afford the price of a K Street firm. The advent of crowd-funding through social media has opened the door for this type of advocacy for Joe and Jane American.

    Reaching funding levels of $5,000-$10,000 is very realistic through crowd funding.Depending upon the issue, some lobbyist may may feel capable of serving a group of investors at a much smaller amount.

    I highly doubt that Members of Congress will encourage constituents to participate in a privately owned site. The sole intention of this site is to take the power of K Street to Main Street America.

    Chris Litton

    • Anne-Bennett Cook Smithson

      Chris,

      I am glad to see that you found my article and quite flattered that you continued the discussion. However, I also noticed YouLobby’s Tweet, in which it was alleged that I think YouLobby is a “conspiracy.” In reviewing the content of my article, that accusation is quite a stretch. A “conspiracy” requires a meeting of the minds, and that is not something that I allege in my article. Rather, I was pointing out that it looks like YouLobby is only targeting folks on the Hill, since that is the only publication that had mentioned the organization. Clearly, your Tweet suggested that the article was an “attack” on you, but it was not intended that way.

      The heart of my article is the fact that to get anything done in Congress costs big bucks, and this is probably not what our forefathers intended when they set out our rights in the Constitution. Further, despite the fact that YouLobby is being touted as a venue for the little man, I have to wonder if it will pan out due to the enormous cost of hiring lobbyists. It is interesting that your lobbyists will not provide a telephone number to clients and will only be held accountable through a blog. Such one-way discussions seem to put the already “little man” client at a distinct disadvantage, almost like a second-class customer. If this becomes the only method of correspondence for clients, the influence still lies with deep pocket interests in DC.

      Of course, I hope your endeavor works out. I am just a skeptic when it comes to getting things done in Washington, especially when, as Hanna commented below, someone is not speaking through the “megaphone” deep pockets.