Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the minority whip, announced on Nov. 26 that he would resign from the Senate by the end of the year. Lott isn’t under fire for anything, but instead, he is leaving to pursue an exciting and rewarding career as a lobbyist.

Congress recently passed a law that extends the period that ex-congressmen must wait before becoming lobbyists from one year to two years: Lott can be exempt from that law if he leaves before it takes effect on Jan. 1. The fact that a leading senator would so readily jump ship to pursue a career in lobbying reflects a dangerous trend among our elected officials toward a practice that is fundamentally undemocratic.

Lobbying took a place in American politics during the infamously corrupt reign of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877). The name refers to the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where Grant went to smoke cigars because his wife would not let him smoke in the White House. People who wanted to influence policy decisions soon realized that this was an ideal place to approach the president. Today lobbying is more commonly applied to private groups who bribe Congress with money and gifts on behalf of special interests. Though lawmakers once considered it demeaning to become lobbyists after leaving office, in recent years this stigma has completely vanished.

Why would someone want to exchange a prestigious position inside the government for a job influencing it from the outside? The reason is that lobbyists can make more money, especially insiders who know the legislative system as well as Lott. This may be good news for talented ex-congressmen, but it is an unfortunate consequence for the health of democracy. Lobbyists make Congress more dependent upon money from elite groups and more detached from the voices of the voters.

For proof of the ill effects of lobbyist groups on legislative decisions, Michigan residents need look no further than the 6 percent service tax increase that was passed by the state legislature on Oct. 1. The lobbyists certainly made their mark on the list of services that dodged the tax: The absence of sporting events from the list of taxed services reflects on the strength of that lobby, and the inclusion of the carpet cleaners reveals its weakness. It should be obvious that janitorial, fortune-telling and house-sitting services were included on the list because these services are not wealthy enough to buy an effective lobby. The culture of lobbying keeps the wealthier services relatively safe from governmental interference, and everyone else foots the bill.

Thankfully, the unfair service tax won’t go into effect because it was wisely repealed on Dec. 1. Though the smaller service industries in Michigan are temporarily safe, they never should have found themselves in such a position at all. Representative democracy means that our elected officials should be paying attention to what the voters want, not what wealthy special interests want. And voters should be outraged that the government can be bought by wealthy lobbies.

Congress has made numerous attempts to reform lobbying practices, but cunning ex-congressmen who know the ins and outs of the system always eventually circumvent these half-hearted laws. Unfortunately, Congressmen have little reason to worry about the influence of lobbyists, because they are the ones benefiting from this systematic bribery. Lobbyist groups provide significant financial support to lawmakers who vote their way. If voters somehow manage to overcome the lobbyist group’s support and throw out the corrupted lawmaker, this individual can simply become a lobbyist and make even more money. The very fact that Lott would rather be a lobbyist than an influential senator is proof that the lobbyists are winning – proof that the government is for sale.

The expansion of a government that is no longer accountable to voters is a frightening thought. Sadly, voters may never be able to take back the democratic process from wealthy special interest groups. The best thing to do now is to scale back the size of the government by any means necessary.

Lott should be ashamed of himself for cashing in on the influence of wealthy elites on the government. Our elected officials should stand up to special interests on our behalf, not abandon us in order to give and take bribes on behalf of special interests. If representative democracy is converting to a dollar-driven tyranny of the elite, we need to challenge the system before it gets completely out of our control.

– Robert Soave can be reached at rsoave@umich.edu.

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