I used to be a lobbyist.
When I first strolled the long halls of the Rayburn House office building, a marble monolith of bureaucracy, I was overcome with a surreal feeling of wonderment. There's a lot of history here, and occasionally I found myself swept up in what felt like the entire span of democratic civilization. Tourists stand, mouths agape and camera shutters firing, witnessing the same veneer of mythical magnitude. In D.C., romanticism often trumps reality.
This, I thought, this is where everything happens. This is where noble members of the public trust harness enlightened traditions and institutions to advance the common interest.
But then I met the members of Congress.
I quickly learned that our elected officials are not demigods solely focused on the collective good — they’re just people. To inflate them into anything else trivializes their real accomplishments at best, and blinds us from the reality of Congress at worst. Lawmakers may have their own parochial interests or lofty causes, but first and foremost they're always looking for votes. To get votes, they need attention and money -- something that corporate lobbyists can dish out in abundance. The end product of this system is lawmaking that's less about making good public policy and more about appeasing the hands that feed — as a result, powerful corporations with deep pockets gain unparalleled access to members of Congress, and they help set the agenda. That agenda is why bills like SOPA and PIPA gain such traction — they were delivered to Congress in return for money and votes.
You don't even have to dig deep into the history of SOPA and PIPA to find blatant conflicts of interest: According to Politico, Allison Halatei, former Deputy Chief of Staff to House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, and Lauren Pastarnack, a Senate Judiciary Committee Senior Aide, just accepted jobs with two of the lobbying firms backing SOPA and PIPA. Halatei and Pastarnack helped write the bills. Halataei is now the National Music Publisher's Association chief liaison to Congress, and Pasternak is now the director of government relations for the MPAA.
You don't even have to dig deep into the history of SOPA and PIPA to find blatant conflicts of interest
It gets worse: Chris Dodd, who served as a senator for thirty years, is now the Chairman and CEO of the MPAA. As a senator, Dodd swore he'd never take money from lobbyists, but he now reaps a $1.5 million base salary and a $100 million lobbying budget. Lobbying is one art form the entertainment industry doesn’t mind investing heavily in: SOPA’s 32 co-sponsors received four times more in campaign contributions from the entertainment industry than from the tech industry. We shouldn’t be surprised that SOPA is as bad as it is; we should be surprised it’s not worse.
Demonstrators and Defectors
Despite the urgency with which certain members of Congress tried to push SOPA and PIPA through the gears of government, legislators are abandoning ship as a direct result of pressure from voters.
As I mentioned, policymakers are more interested in taking positions than making great laws, because positions are more valuable for grabbing votes. Knowing that a massive public outcry over SOPA and PIPA may threaten their offices more than pressure from interest groups, sponsors of the bills have dialed back their enthusiasm for their most controversial provisions. In the past week alone, leaders from both major political parties that once supported pushing SOPA and PIPA through without critical evaluation have quickly backpedaled, postponing hearings and making broad assurances that "consensus" will be reached before a vote occurs.
Don't be fooled: these legislators still want to enact anti-piracy legislation that will please their benefactors, and the advantage is squarely in their court.
Wikipedia, Google, and others joining in today's internet blackout in opposition to SOPA have paid an immense price: their credibility is now on the line, and protest doesn't come cheap. The conversation may reach a flashpoint in the next few days, but Congress has plenty of time to sit on SOPA and PIPA until the fervor dies down. Wikipedia can't shut itself down every month to protest the bills every time they take a new turn for the worse, and the public's attentiveness isn't likely to last forever. Just today, Chris Dodd published a statement denouncing the blackouts. He says that "a so-called 'blackout' is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals." Members of Congress actually care about what this man says. They care a lot.
Even if SOPA and PIPA die on the vine, Congress will be back with fresh legislation and cute new propaganda-laden titles, courtesy of the MPAA and RIAA's ruthlessly effective combination of money and patience — a combination the tech community has shown little interest in matching. To change Congress, you have to change who Congress listens to. But more importantly, you have to change what those people are saying — and to do that you need to peer outside the marble halls of Congress and focus your gaze squarely on Silicon Valley.
Congress is a game, and anyone who wants to get something done in government plays
Playing the Game
As long as the entertainment industry spends more money in Washington than the tech industry, bad laws like SOPA and PIPA will appear with frightening regularity. The government will seem ignorant and unresponsive to the internet community for as long as the internet community refuses to participate — that’s just how this works.
Congress is a game, and anyone who wants to get something done in government plays. Those who don't play never accomplish anything. It's a game of reputation, relationships, back-room deals, and big money. And if you haven't called or written your representatives, or engaged someone to advocate on your behalf, you're not even spectating from the bleachers — as far as Congress is concerned, you're sitting in your car listening to the game on the radio, somewhere in the uncharted Canadian tundra. Meanwhile, special interest groups help decide the batting order, while lobbyists line the bases, waving their pet legislation home.
Getting Congress to listen is not the problem with SOPA or PIPA, because they are listening — to the loudest voices with the most money. The tech industry has long been in the game — Google and Microsoft and Apple all certainly employ lobbyists — but it’s time to start playing to win.