Can Tea Party Leaders Also Be Lobbyists?
While a smart move, it presents a dilemma inside the Movement.
The Tea Party Movement, once dismissed as a small band of disorganized political novices, thundered to victory in the 2010 elections. More than any other entity, the Tea Party was largely responsible for the largest Republican wave since 1946, with the GOP gaining control of the U.S. House as well as numerous governorships and state legislatures. Republicans also made significant gains in the U.S. Senate, making a takeover next year a realistic possibility.
In achieving that success, however, the TP finds itself in a paradox: it is now part of the very Establishment which it fought so hard to topple. And there are mounting differences among Tea Party leaders as to how the Movement should proceed.
A particular point of contention is whether Tea Party leaders should register as lobbyists, a profession despised by the rank and file. Correct or not, lobbyists are commonly perceived as buying legislators’ votes through large campaign contributions, expensive dinners and lavish trips. In return, narrowly-written bills directly catering to the lobbyist’s client are introduced. Fighting that “institutionalized corruption” is a major Tea Party endeavor.
Every state sets different rules for governing lobbyists, but in general, if an individual receives compensation for advocating particular legislation, and/or is picking up the tab for a legislator, they need to register. (Conversely, one never has to register if payment is not received or gifts/perks to elected officials do not occur.)
Now that Republicans control legislative chambers across the country, and many Tea Party-endorsed bills are seeing the light of day, some TP leaders have put down the protest signs and picked up the lobbyist form — a move that has them feeling some heat.
Some receive compensation to run their respective Tea operations, while others may be paid by conservative interest groups outside the scope of the Tea Party. Either way, when those individuals meet legislators in their offices and openly push for particular legislation, they are de facto lobbyists.
Anathema as it may be to many in the Movement, registering is a prudent move. The Tea Party has many adversaries who would enjoy nothing more than seeing negative publicity directed at prominent TP leaders. But it’s infinitely easier for one to explain that he is abiding by lobbying requirements than be faced with a headline that a Tea Party Leader has broken the law.
Such a charge would seriously undermine that leader’s credibility, his organization and the TP Movement in general, due to the perception that the leader violated one of the Tea Party’s most fundamental tenets: be a responsible, law-abiding citizen.
And clearly, if the Tea Party is forced into a defensive mode, it becomes distracted and is taken off-message --- a victory for its opponents.
While leaders becoming lobbyists is an unintended consequence of Tea Party success, a word of caution is in order. A Tea Party leader paid by an outside entity to advocate a specific bill has a moral and ethical responsibility to inform his membership of that fiduciary arrangement. Anything less than up-front full disclosure will result in a sense of betrayal among members strong enough to fracture that organization and permanently impugn the credibility of its leaders. Such a situation has already occurred in Pennsylvania, resulting in a highly-divided TP coalition.
Tea Party leaders can certainly disagree on policy and strategy, but ignoring on the virtues of truth, transparency and trust is a recipe for disaster.