Long before there was Jack Abramoff, lobbying became a dirty word. When the former high-powered lobbyist pleaded guilty to five felony counts in January, it unleashed a flurry of activity on both sides of the political aisle to lay claim to the party of ethics reform in Washington, D.C.
The proposals have ranged from a 9/11-style independent commission that would connect the dots between money and influence in Congress, to separate initiatives intended to slow the revolving door between Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street; tighten reporting requirements for gifts and fundraising; force Dutch-treat dinners and coffee breaks on lobbyists and those whom they hope to influence; and establish a bright line of distinction between official and privately funded travel.
If any of these measures were sufficient alone to address the problem, they would have worked the last time they were tried -- or the time before that.
The Center for Public Integrity estimates that sunshine or public disclosure laws -- the cornerstone of open government -- have been eclipsed more than 300 times by amendments in the last four years, all in the name of national security. There has been tacit recognition that the Internet has a role to play in reform efforts with government and third-party Web sites dedicated to financial disclosures -- both those focused on contributions to elected officials and those that track spending from the public purse. (What if these online databases were Web services that supported real-time "mash-ups" with the Google maps and ones that cross-referenced bill sponsorships, corporate directorships and even the good old Who's Who?)
Civic engagement on the Internet to date has largely been a group phenomenon, pursued disproportionately by progressive political organizations jockeying for advantage via search results. Indeed, Americans have used MoveOn.org to help shape elections, Participate.net to merge activism with entertainment, and Meetup.com for all manner of community and civic contact. Blog swarms -- which form "when many blogs pick up a theme or begin to pursue a story," according to author Hugh Hewitt -- are the new street protests and the new chain letters; netroots are the new grassroots; and all have emerged effective for raising huge sums of cash at lightning speeds.
Cash and critical mass add up to influence -- at best, the stuff of modern lobbying, and at worst, little more than the virtualization of lobbyists like Abramoff. The much-ballyhooed idea of the netizen is really much more akin to the old school view of lobbying. According to the editors of The Oxford English Dictionary, lobbying as third-party influence on the political process is a uniquely American definition, dating from its first documented use in Ohio in the 1830s. Counterintuitively, the word lobbyist would take another decade to make it to Washington, D.C., where an apocryphal story endures at a local hotel that the word lobby originated in its vestibule.
The Oxford editors trace the origins of the verb lobby to 1640, when British subjects would petition their members of Parliament by talking to them in the lobby of the House of Commons. American citizens expect no less, but the intervening four centuries have added layers of intermediaries and bureaucracies to the relationship between the governed and those who govern. Can the act of lobbying be returned to its origins? Perhaps. And while we wait for new legislative proposals and commissions and their reports, there is a small and significant redemptive act well within our reach. Imagine a post-Abramoff America in which elected officials did something revolutionary, simple and inherently democratic -- actually read and respond to the e-mail they receive from the citizens they purport to serve.