At Least Lobbyists Are Transparent

By Beacon Staff

The term “public interest” is tossed around a lot and we should think about what it means. Groups sue to stop the construction of a generating plant, transmission line, highway project, or a timber sale and say that the lawsuit is being brought because of “public interest.”

This greatly bothers me because I have not asked anyone to represent me in stopping projects meant to improve the quality of life in Montana, provide jobs and manage forests. As a member of the public with an interest in promoting not hindering activities, I object to some group saying “it is operating on my behalf.” These people do not represent me or my best interest.

Along with “public interest” is another term used in, most often, a disparaging manner and that one is “special interest.” Along with “special interest” comes lobbyist, said in a fearful tone.

While some disdainfully dismiss the efforts of “special interests” and lobbyists, we at least are honest about who we represent and exactly how and why we are doing so. I do not claim to speak for all of the public when I make statements or write op-ed pieces. It is very clear that I represent those companies and individuals who belong to a trade association that was formed to provide a single voice on issues vital to their well-being.

The same holds true for numerous associations across Montana that rightly have an interest in issues that will have an impact on their businesses or customers. The name nearly always is simple and straightforward and tells who is represented like the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Contractors Association, or the Montana Logging Association. It would be pretty hard to not know who the members are and therefore understand the positions they take on issues.

And, yes, there are lobbyists working for these entities. It has grown very tiresome being vilified because I have a license to lobby for my members. There are some who think it is great sport to cast aspersions on those of us who publicly express our views on subjects for our organizations. The lobbyists I know and work with are hardworking, honest individuals who do their level best to provide factual information to the public and to elected officials on behalf of their clients. We pay the state of Montana a lobby license fee and file reports so anyone can see who we lobby for and what, if any, funds are at play. We work under very transparent conditions as we should.

According to my research, the number of public interest groups active in Montana politics has increased dramatically since the late 1960s. Much of this increase is accounted for by the creation of new kinds of organizations usually formed around some cause or idea and my experience is that it can be very difficult at times to know exactly who they are and what they represent. Names like Citizens Against Everything do not give a clear indication of what they are all about, what they want or who funds them. Unless they officially lobby there is no paper trail to find out details about them. These individuals seem to come together to oppose an action or activity and not to promote anything positive. Fortunately, when their single issue is somehow resolved these groups go away.

The most dangerous are the self-appointed “public interest” groups that are in business to throw roadblocks in the path of positive development and they do not go away but rather remain as a conflict industry. When a spokesperson stands up and touts that the group is acting in the “public interest,” when in fact it is not, they give the false impression that what they want is in the best interest of the public-at-large. They cannot, and do not, represent all of the citizens of Montana.

These small, vocal entities have set a pattern to go directly to court where the lives of many are decided by the decisions of a few. I can name countless lawsuits that have been filed that stopped work and cost jobs in the name of the so-called public interest. It is simply wrong.

In writing the Federalist papers, James Madison worried about what he called factions, his term for interest groups, and felt the need to organize constitutional government in a way that moderates the bad effects of factions. He wanted to have a society that would be so large no single faction could dominate public life. Madison would be horrified to see how much damage some “public interest” factions have inflicted on our society. It is evident from his writings that those actions are not what he or the other Founding Fathers had in mind.

Ellen Simpson is executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association.