Lobbying isn’t the problem, corruption is

Let’s say you want to build a housing project that caters to the needs of formerly homeless people who are trying to deal with mental illness and drug abuse. First off, thank you — projects like yours may be the best way to combat chronic homelessness and break the cycle of street to jail, then back to the street.

Second, good luck. You’re going to have to find a neighborhood in which resistance is weak, and you’re going to have to talk the local City Council member into not blocking your project. You’ve hired an expediter to get your permits moving through the Planning, Building & Safety and Transportation departments. You’ve got legal counsel. Still, you’d better hire a lobbyist.

Why a lobbyist? You need someone to state your case to the guy behind the counter, the Area Planning Commission, the full Planning Commission, the City Council and the mayor. You may like your plan, and you may do a pretty decent job of explaining why it’s good for everyone. But going into a commission hearing in Los Angeles without a lobbyist is like going into court for a major lawsuit without a lawyer.

In the courtroom, it won’t help your case much if your lawyer went to the same school as the judge or has drinks with him after work. It shouldn’t make that much difference in City Hall, either, if your lobbyist is in tight with the public officials. But who are we kidding?

When it’s time to pick a lobbyist, you certainly want to know how well he knows the politicians. If he donated money to the councilman’s reelection campaign, so much the better, because no councilman with a future is going to refuse to see your lobbyist if he’s a donor. It’s even better if your lobbyist held a big fundraiser for the councilman. It’s not that you’re buying the politician’s vote. It’s simply that you’re getting the elected official’s attention.

It’s natural for you to want to hire the best-connected person possible to lobby for your project. If you’re serious about getting the job done, it’s practically irresponsible not to get someone with a financial connection to the decisionmaker. Likewise, it’s perfectly reasonable for a lobbyist to conduct fundraisers for politicians. It would be foolish to expect clients or lobbyists not to try to get the edge.

But improving your project’s chances by funneling financial support to an elected official is unfair. It subverts the democratic system, in which the only thing that’s supposed to count is the vote and the quality of the elected official. It defeats openness and above-board dealing by bypassing the vote and injecting a new ingredient: money.

Fortunately, we have a way to prevent individuals from doing what comes naturally in order to promote their interests. We pass laws.

Last November, Los Angeles voters passed Proposition R, a measure that enticed support for adding a third term to City Council members’ permitted tenure by also adding a handful of restrictions on lobbyists. Unfortunately, lobbying has such a bad name that some of the most popular restrictions may be gratuitous.

It’s a popular move, for example, to ban gifts from lobbyists to city officials. But prior city law already restricted gifts to a value of no more than $25 per year, so the change wasn’t that big a deal. Likewise, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had already barred lobbyists from city commissions, so Proposition R simply encoded that ban into law.

The more substantive reform was to bar lobbyists from making contributions to political campaigns. That new law cuts the chain that links a lobbyist’s financial support to a politician’s decision.

Or does it? Under city campaign finance laws, no one can give more than $500 per election to a City Council candidate anyway. The limit is doubled for a candidate for citywide office — mayor, city attorney, controller — but still, what kind of elected official could be swayed by a mere $1,000 when it takes millions to run a campaign? The donation — and the ban — are small potatoes.

Back to your homeless project. If you really want an insider to be your lobbyist, you would be smart to find someone who throws a fundraiser for the elected official. That, by the way, remains perfectly legal under city laws. Your lobbyist can’t write his own check, but he can invite all of his clients to his house and ask them, quite honestly, to each write checks for $500 to a council candidate, $1,000 for a mayoral candidate. If your lobbyist has 20 clients, that’s $10,000 he raised for a council candidate. Or, to be realistic — because each spouse can donate up to the limit as well — $20,000.

That’s legal? It is. But it shouldn’t be. There ought to be a law.

Critics of reform often argue that every new law creates opportunities for creative influence-seekers to find new avenues to get connected. That may be so. But that’s no reason to encourage the continued subversion of the public process by special influence money.

Robert Greene is a member of The Times’ editorial board; click here to read his archive. Send us your thoughts at