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C. Fraser Smith: Lobbyists don’t represent the people

My estimable colleague Josh Kurtz, a columnist for Center Maryland, has written an enviable piece about the state of play in Annapolis.

Who’s really got the power there?

Denizens of the halls know that more and more money is made there by more and more lobbyists. Eight of these masters of the legislative universe hauled in more than $1 million during the last reporting cycle.

Perfectly legal and important, of course. The issue is balance: Do you have a lobbyist? Do you have an interest pending before the 188 members of the General Assembly?

Of course you do. Your lobbyist is your senator or member of the House of Delegates.

But know this: He or she is outgunned.

The possibility that a lobbyist knows more about a bill than a reporter or a legislator has always been great. It’s getting greater.

And more important than what the lobbyist knows is who the lobbyist knows — or used to work for. It’s a game of relationships and favors. Such things are negotiable, maybe even bankable. And it’s all so civilized it seems not only harmless but helpful.

“I don’t think it’s news that [lobbyists] have been running the show in Annapolis for a while,” Kurtz said in an email this week. “It’s just that there are more of them, and they’re slicker and better compensated.”

Legislators are some of the hardest-working people (for the most part) I’ve known. They are paid about $50,000 a year. Lobbyists are in a financial world apart. (See above.) Eighty-seven of them made more than $100,000 — and 18 of those were north of a half-million dollars.

It is an honor to serve the people, of course. It can be a goal to serve a bank or a cellphone company or an energy giant.

Annapolis has become a beachhead for the mega corporations striving to own government at every level. The Koch Brothers are mentioned with fear and loathing — but they aren’t the half of it.

What we have is our very own little corporatocracy. Too many Americans, says the media critic Robert McChesney, think capitalism and democracy are kind of the same. His view: Corporations are smothering democracy in pursuit of their own narrow interests.

There can be no doubt that corporations grow stronger as the media — and our elected representatives — grow weaker. As Kurtz points out, corporations and their lobbyists can field teams of advocates to flood the zone on any bill of importance to their clients. Who can you call on to flood your zone of concern?

And it is not as if your representatives are unaware of all this. To their credit, they have tried to get a handle on things — not easy, because the lobbyists are often the campaign partners of your representatives.

In the past, lobbyists were chief fundraisers for “the votes” — the men and women who, the lobbyists hope, will see things their way.

Years ago, I wrote about campaign finance issues so often that people thought “Campaign Finance” were place-holders for my first two names. My interest was encouraged by my bosses. There were more of us available in those days at The Sun and other newspapers. We were not understaffed — and we weren’t blogging and tweeting and videotaping.

Some of the lobbyists I knew in those days — the best of them students of human nature — saw what was coming for them and their comrades in arms: With so much money at stake, people might do borderline things. Smart players took their $400,000 and went home. They watched as some of their competitors stepped over the line and went to jail.

Too bad, of course.

The concern we should have, though, is McChesney’s: The lobbying corps is swallowing democracy. If lobbyists know more than senators and delegates about a proposal and if they line up in teams, my representatives are likely to be overwhelmed.

Time to push back, folks. These people don’t represent you.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is fsmith@wypr.org.