Michael Richards sometimes finds himself telling people, “I’m not your typical lobbyist.” But in fact, that’s exactly what he is.
Richards, the executive director of government relations and external affairs for Gundersen Lutheran Health System of La Crosse, isn’t trying to mislead anyone when he denies being typical. He’s just countering a popular misconception — that lobbyists are hired guns for well-heeled special interests.
“I think the general public sees lobbyists the same way as they see trial attorneys,” says Richards, naming another profession that deserves a better reputation than it has.
Jonathan Becker, the ethics division administrator with the Government Accountability Board, agrees that lobbyists are commonly seen as people who “work for large law firms with lots of clients.” He says it’s not so much a misperception as an incomplete perception.
There are, Becker notes, quite a few high-powered contract lobbyists: “The public isn’t wrong if it thinks about lobbyists in that light.” But other lobbyists, like Richards, seek to influence state policy or legislation as a small part of their jobs.
In fact, these in-house representatives of companies or organizations account for three quarters of the more than 700 licensed lobbyists in Wisconsin, according to the GAB. Fewer than 150 are contract lobbyists — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“The vast majority of lobbyists in Wisconsin are people of high integrity,” attests Richards, who came to Gundersen Lutheran last year after working as an in-house lobbyist for Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee for several years. “We’re out to make public policy better for the organizations we work for and the people we represent.”
Or, as he puts it, “We’re not how we’re portrayed in the media.”
In the first six months of this year, Richards and a colleague at Gundersen Lutheran reported spending $14,123 on 234 hours on lobbying, about a third of that communicating with state officials. So far this legislative session, the nonprofit health provider has staked out positions on about a dozen bills, while identifying numerous other areas of interest.
“We just look at every single bill: Is this going to impact us and at what level,” Richards says. “Our role is to speak on behalf of our 6,300 employees and the patients who get their care here.”
Richards explains his role regarding one pending bill, AB 220, which would provide a tax credit for businesses that offer employee wellness programs. He says Gundersen Lutheran urged that employee vaccinations and physical examinations be added as included services. They were.
Nearly a quarter of Gundersen Lutheran’s reported lobbying effort was on “medical homes,” which provide a comprehensive approach to primary care. According to Richards, much of this consisted of advising the state Department of Health Services on how to achieve Medicare savings, an area in which Gundersen Lutheran has had some success.
Richards says this typifies his role as “an educator and an advocate” on issues of concern, guiding policymakers to better decisions.
That may sound a bit grandiose, but Gundersen Lutheran does have credibility as an innovator. It has embarked on an ambitious environmental program, Envision, that aspires to be a national model for health-care providers, which spend billions of dollars on energy each year.
“We are going to be the first health system in the U.S. and maybe in the world that will be energy self-sufficient by 2014,” Richards boasts. Gundersen Lutheran’s approach runs the gamut from its purchase of hybrid cars and energy-efficient equipment to its investments in wind turbines.
Says Richards, “We’re here to provide positive solutions to some of the biggest issues facing the country.”
Spoken like a true lobbyist.
Key statement: “We’re out to make public policy better for the organizations we work for and the people we represent.”
So, they’re out to change government laws, regulations, programs and expenditures to benefit private interests. If they capture new loopholes, deregulation, tax-breaks, high-cost services, loans, or free grants for their wealthy clients … and those changes hurt the rest of us in some way … so be it.
They don’t feel responsible for their part in our economic meltdown, increased deficits, education cuts, health care cuts, service cuts, reduced pollution controls, or the rapidly expanding divide between the ultra-rich and the middling-to-poor in this country.
Even if, as Richards says, “The vast majority of lobbyists in Wisconsin are people of high integrity,” those people still skew and interfere with the relationship between elected officials and citizens in those officials’ home districts.
Lobbyists are not elected representatives. Most don’t serve the general public in ANY district. Even the small minority of under-paid lobbyists who argue on behalf of non-profit public interest organizations are usually speaking for a subset of the population, not everyone.
Full-time, paid lobbyists only represent people, religions, or businesses who can afford to pay them. The rest of us … the vast majority of us … can’t afford lobbyists.
Why would “people of great integrity” excuse, profit from, and help perpetuate such a grossly imbalanced and unfair political process? Especially given the overwhelming evidence of the collective harm caused overall by lobbying pressure on our government?
People of integrity, especially those with lobbying experience, should be using their skills and knowledge to advocate for a truly representative democracy. They should demand a system where EVERYONE within each district has equal open access to the elected representatives for their district. People of integrity should demand a system where special interests from outside of districts are less favored or even discouraged from making unnecessary, high-pressure contacts with representatives of those districts.
Most important: People of integrity should make it their TOP PRIORITY to advocate for removal of private money from our elections. (Every lobbyist knows from firsthand observation how corrosive and damaging that money is.)
Instead, many lobbyists are just one part of larger issue campaigns that use freighter-loads of election money to turbo-charge their lobbying pressure on elected officials.
In other words, they’re part of organized bribery or extortion threats which directly impact our elected officials and government functions.
But most lobbyists just do their own thing, good or bad, and take no personal responsibility for fixing the overall sickness of counter-productive influence-peddling. They’re willing participants in this system. (Unfortunately, too many other Americans are equally useless and self-involved.)
I would never refer to such inaction as “high integrity” behavior.
Most lobbyists are probably nice average people and never deliberately “evil,” but if they’re willing participants in a high-paid horde lobbying our government officials AGAINST the public’s interests, and they do nothing to correct this system, they are NOT admirable or outstanding role-models for our children. They aren’t our friends and they deserve to be ashamed of their occupation.
It’s anti-social behavior, even if it’s high-paid, common-place and institutionalized.
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