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Lobbyists demand some respect

Dave Wenhold runs the American League of Lobbyists.

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: These are the best of times and the worst of times to be a lobbyist in Washington. Congress has taken on everything from reshaping health care to the financial system. So business is booming. But lobbyists raking in money don't always get a lot of respect. And now they're lobbying for that, too. The American League of Lobbyists is ponying up a modest $25,000 to start a PR campaign.

Brett Neely reports from Washington.


Brett Neely: Washington's K Street is to lobbying shops what Wall Street is to banks. And so K Street drew hundreds of union demonstrators earlier this week who were protesting banks and their lobbyists.

Protestors: Whose street? Our street!

Beating up on Washington's 13,000 registered lobbyists is nothing new. Take the 2005 movie "Thank You for Smoking," a satire about a tobacco lobbyist. In this scene, a journalist tells the lobbyist what people think of him.

Heather Holloway: My other interviews have pinned you as a mass murderer, blood sucker, pimp, profiteer, child killer, and my personal favorite, yuppie Mephistopheles.

Now, lobbyists have called up their own lobbyist to turn their image around. Dave Wenhold runs the American League of Lobbyists. He's leading the industry's PR campaign. We met, appropriately enough, in the lobby of a building just a block away from the U.S. Capitol.

Dave Wenhold: We're going to be talking about, why hire a lobbyist? Well, there's a really good reason for that. One of the reasons is because they're an expert in the political process.

He says many politicians are stretched too thin, so they need expert lobbyists to give them advice on legislation.

Wenhold: I'm a pretty smart guy, I kinda know where my appendix is, but if I'm having appendicitis, I'm going to a doctor who knows where it is.

He emphasizes that lobbyists aren't just corporate hired guns. There are lobbyists who specialize in cancer research and homeless shelters. For Wenhold, it's not really members of Congress who represent the American public, it's guys like him.

Wenhold: Most people are represented by lobbyists, and they don't even know. I mean, to give you an example: The second you get up in the morning you're represented by a lobbyist. You go to have your toast, the wheat lobbyists love you. You have your eggs, the poultry farmers love you and their lobbyists. You get in your car, if it's a Toyota, you have a lot of lobbyists right now.

But cases like Toyota contribute to the industry's bad reputation. The company had to recall millions of cars because of sudden acceleration problems. According to Congressional testimony, Toyota's lobbyists bragged about aggressively heading off tighter government oversight before the safety issues became public.

Melanie Sloan runs the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Her group just hired its first lobbyist. Sloan says everyone, including lobbyists, has a right to petition Congress, but...

Melanie Sloan: Lobbyists are able to buy access to members of Congress with campaign contributions, and it's really that that so gets to the American people.

Because her group is nonprofit, its lobbyist won't donate. But Dave Wenhold says lobbyists' campaign contributions don't buy access to lawmakers. He does agree that the campaign finance system is broken.

Wenhold: I think it would be great if members of Congress stopped asking lobbyists for donations. I really do. I would love to go home on a Wednesday night at a reasonable time, and I know members hate doing it, too. But until every American is willing to pony up a couple of thousand dollars to elect their elected official, that process isn't going to change.

Wenhold says people may blame lobbyists for everything that's wrong with Washington, but lobbyists aren't the ones casting Congressional votes. And he says if voters don't like what their member of Congress is up to, they should vote for someone else.

In other words, blame the system. Don't blame the lobbyist.

In Washington, I'm Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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