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Lobbying Then And Now

Dolores L. Mitchell, Executive Director of the Group Insurance Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, pities today's lawmakers having to sort through the blizzard of "advice" from lobbyists:

I’ve recently been reading a new biography about Justice Louis Brandeis, who, before Woodrow Wilson named him to the Supreme Court, had earned a national reputation as “The People’s Attorney.” He was given that name because over some twenty or more years, he took on the cause of advocating for the public interest in opposition to the rich and powerful — in those days they were often railroads, and, yes, big banks. He espoused competition over consolidation, and was responsible for the creation of Savings Bank Life Insurance, with its lower rates for more modest income families — (all this before Teddy Bruschi was even born!).

Some of Brandeis’s solutions are a bit dated — he didn’t like big government much more than big industries, but one thing is as needed today as it was in the first two decades of the 20th Century, (I’m only up to page 400, so his supreme court decisions are yet to come) namely, his uncompromising professional integrity. So insistent was he that if he took on a cause because he believed in its rightness, he refused to take any money for this work, and he even went so far as to compensate his law firm (still in practice today in Boston as Nutter, McClennan & Fish) for monies they might have lost as a result of his public interest work.

There were certainly paid lobbyists in those days, and some of the methods of “persuading” legislators haven’t changed all that much, but Justice Brandeis would have been appalled at the scene in Washington today, where interest groups lobbying for or against each and every section of the health reform law (to say nothing of banks, brokers, and credit card regulations) are to be found everywhere you look.

One example recently profiled in a Boston Globe editorial was the provision to protect biotech companies from generic competitors by keeping the generic off the market for 12 years. Another is the much debated Stupak Amendment -- and on, and on.

One almost feels pity for the legislators who have to try to make up their own minds in the midst of the cacophony of “advice” they are getting from every corner.

Interest group lobbying is of course, legal and a part of the free speech rights of Americans. But I would submit that public interest groups and the public interest are two very different things, and what I, and many others worry about, is that the voice of the former is increasingly drowning out the voices of the latter. We need more voices like that of Louis Brandeis and we need them now.

(The Group Insurance Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the agency that provides life, health, disability and dental and vision services to over 300,000 State employees, retirees and their dependents.)

This program aired on November 27, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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