“There’s just something a tad depressing that it takes hiring a lobbyist to help navigate the Haiti rebuilding process” – Chuck Todd
That tweet from NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd came in reaction to a story in The Hill newspaper about the recent lobbying efforts for the $1.15 billion in unreleased Congressional funds to rebuild Haiti. Todd isn’t the only one chagrined to realize that a number of lobbying firms are collecting fees to help companies navigate bureaucratic waters in order to provide contracting services in Haiti.
But this situation really isn’t that tragic. The lobbyists involved aren’t pitching useless services. Instead, they’re clearing rubble, rebuilding damaged infrastructure, installing wireless internet, and constructing bamboo huts. Actually, it is only the last service which was woefully unsuccessful. The company building the huts, Shelters International, ran out of money when the process became too cumbersome. As their lobbyist told The Hill, “It really is ‘Everyone passes the buck onto someone else.’”
Lobbyists help companies handle meetings and navigate government behemoths like USAID and World Bank. True, in an ideal environment, contracting relief companies would be able to pick up a phone and offer their services, but that’s not the way federal contracts work. Due to detailed and exhaustive requirements, it isn’t realistic or fair to expect any company to not do its due diligence and determine what it is getting into. In this case, that due diligence may leave a lobbyist richer, but one can’t blame the lobbyist who is offering a valuable and productive service. Shelters International wasn’t prevented from building huts because of its lobbyist; it was prevented from building huts because of our government.
If Todd and others find this productive use of lobbyists depressing, I could make them really sad with some actual lobbying hires which do waste money. For example, counties and cities often hire lobbyists in order to secure federal funding. This is a foolish expense that should never occur. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie put it earlier this year, municipal lobbying hires are a “wasteful and extravagant use of taxpayer funds that has instilled and reinforced the public’s mistrust.” Another example of a depressing lobbying practice is the continued existence of lobbyists and firms that sell clients on the allure of earmarks. These are just a couple of examples of lobbyist/client relationships that are troublesome and, in Todd’s words, “a tad depressing.”
A lobbyist can be an important member of an advocacy team if she is hired for her contacts and capabilities. In the case of Haiti, it is reasonable to hire a capable lobbyist who knows the right people to talk to in an effort to streamline the contract so that contractors can get to the work at hand. Even if the government were moving faster, hiring a lobbyist would likely still be worthwhile in order to guarantee that such an important task is handled judiciously. I don’t think Haiti is the best example of a “sad” lobbying situation. Other lobbying relationships, though, do merit a therapy session.
Maury Litwack is a lobbyist, former Hill staffer and author of the recently published The Capitol Plan – A Comprehensive Washington Advocacy Strategy. He blogs at CapitolPlan.com.