When I was 9 or 10, I was asked, by a member of the foreign press corps attending one of my parents’ cocktail parties, what I wanted to do when I grew up. I answered that I wanted to be a lobbyist, which provoked laughter first, and then puzzled amusement. Why on earth would I want to be a lobbyist?
Because, I said, they’re the ones who actually get things done and they don’t have to pretend to be on anybody’s side. More laughter, followed by probing looks at my parents. It was 1984 or 1985, the height of the Reagan administration, and my father worked for the Democratic Congress. I had likely heard him grumbling about lobbyists and asked about it. Edited for his child, “The bastards control all the votes,” had morphed into something more polite. And then when I asked what lobbyists were, he probably said they get paid to argue somebody’s case in Congress and they live in Virginia.
And that sounded fine to me. I knew a few lawyers, and they were rich and good at arguing, I liked politics and had friends who lived in Virginia, and I knew from the playground that real control came from never picking a side. Voilá.
Since the mid-’80s the ag lobby, the pharma lobby, and the defense lobby (and many other lobbies) have changed the political landscape in our country so that it is almost unrecognizable. Sure, there have always been people in Washington asking for favors, but those people didn’t codify their positions over the years with Vatican-like precision, nor did the money they control have the power to guarantee victory in even the most far-flung Congressional precincts.
Over the course of my lifetime, the lobbyists have tightened their chokehold in the Capitol with each successful political revolution, burying their work in the fine print of massive pieces of legislation that no one, especially not freshman Congressmen, can possibly understand. As smart as he is, Michael Clark, the subject of this week’s feature, can’t tell if the Food Safety Modernization Act will kill the livelihood he’s built from scratch. Besides lobbying, agriculture is Virginia’s biggest industry, producing 221,000 jobs and nearly $26 billion in total output. The typical Virginia farmer is 58 years old, runs a farm of 171-acres worth over $1 million, and raises cows or chickens. Maybe the lobbyists can tell me why if agriculture is thriving, farmers are an endangered species.