Imagine the shock our national politicians felt in learning that former top Reagan aide Michael K. Deaver used his access to high-level government officials to lobby for various foreign-government and business interests. Ex-government officials "have acted as if public service is a license for serving self-interest and private interests," sniffed Sen. Gary Hart (D–Colo.). And Rep. Ron Wyden (D–Oreg.), in what must have been a revelatory moment indeed, intoned with wide-eyed incredulity: "Many people are starting to presume that Washington is up for sale."
From all the professed indignation, you might have wondered if the tenants of Capitol Hill truly don't see what a marketplace of favors and influence Washington really is. How, we ask, could they have missed the 9,000 domestic lobbyists registered with the secretary of the Senate? Or the 800 firms and 6,000 individuals listed with the Justice Department as agents of foreign interests? And aren't House members really aware that they received 41 percent of their 1984 election funds from political action committees, or that in the 83-84 campaign season, PACs gave $111 million to House and Senate candidates (72 percent of which went to incumbents)? And don't they know that a hundred or more of their ex-brethren from Congress still roam the halls of government, now as lobbyists?
Of course they know. But the smoke and flash of their indignation masterfully deflects attention from their own role in what has become a national bazaar of special-interest politics.
As government scandals go, the events that spawned this latest round of pieties about the oxymoronic notion called "government ethics" aren't all that juicy. According to a General Accounting Office investigation, long-time Reagan friend and confidant Michael Deaver, who in May 1985 left his post as deputy White House chief of staff, may have broken "conflict-of-interest" laws in lobbying for, among others, the Canadian government (on an acid-rain cleanup issue) and Rockwell International Corp. (to promote the B-1 bomber). Both Congress and the Justice Department are looking further into the charges.
Already, however, a crop of proposals to tighten the conflict-of-interest laws has popped up. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.), for example, is pushing a bill to impose greater restrictions on all former federal employees (including ex-members of Congress, who are exempt from the current laws). And three Democrats—Senator Hart, Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, and Rep. Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota—have introduced legislation to place stricter limits specifically on ex-employees of the executive branch. In such fashion, the reform movement is universally concerned with further restricting lobbying by ex-government employees—as if they do their greatest harm to the citizenry while out of office rather than in.
Whatever the moral and legal correctness of such attempts to hem in the activities of private citizens—albeit former employees of the state—one thing is clear. The implicit assumption underlying the current anti-lobbying rhetoric insidiously subverts clear thinking about the issue, for not a bit of it even slightly acknowledges this fundamental truth: If politicians had no favors to dispense—if the state didn't have such broad powers over the affairs of the people—then 9 out of 10 lobbyists would be out of a job, and the rest we wouldn't have to worry about.
To blame lobbyists for the evils of government is akin to blaming the audience for a bad movie. "Washington has become a sinkhole of influence peddling," said an angered Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D–Ohio), his fury focused on the damnable lobbyists. Yet it's not the lobbyists; it's the lucre of government favors handed out by politicians—fat defense contracts, protectionist tariffs, assorted subsidies, etc.—that gives rise to sleazy merchants of "access" and influence like Michael Deaver. Moreover, politicians are free to say no to the importunings of lobbyists, a point that many seem to have forgotten.
The great social thinker F.A. Hayek, in his 1944 classic work The Road to Serfdom, warned that as the state is permitted to expand its power, at some point the only power worth having is state power. Sad but true, the Deaver affair shows just how far we the American people have let that corrupting process advance. The cure, however, is not yet another set of symptom-treating anti-lobbying laws. It will take more radical surgery to rid the cancerous growth of state power from the republic.