Influence is as influence does…

The right to petition Congress for the redress of grievance is enshrined in the Constitution, but those who earn their living by exercising that right on behalf of others — lobbyists — are being increasingly vilified.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has made a campaign issue of the “undue influence” of lobbyists in Washington, the implication being that they also have too much influence on rivals like Sen. Hillary Clinton.

John Edwards boasts the he have never taken a contribution from a lobbyist and called on the other candidates to do likewise.

Clinton tried to stand up for the lobbyists at a convention of largely liberal Democrat bloggers — “A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not represent real Americans, they actually do” — and was booed and hissed for her efforts.

According to the AP account of the convention, “Edwards asked crowd members how many of them were represented by lobbyists. A few hands went up, and his point was made.”

Actually, probably all of them were represented in one way or another by lobbyists. Their home states maintain Washington lobbyists and if they live in a big city, the city does as well. The telecommunications, software and Internet companies that support their prized blogosphere have huge lobbying operations in the capital. There are about 35,000 lobbyists in the capital and it would be hard to find a cause that they don’t represent.

But, because lobbyists are by definition supplicants, they are in an ideal position to take the blame for scandals like the Jack Abramoff affair. The recently passed ethics bill puts more of an onus on the lobbyists in keeping Congress clean than it does on Congress itself.

Lobbyists who violate some provisions of the complex new ethics bill face fines of $200,000 and up to five years in prison. The bill does allow lobbyists to treat lawmakers to food of “nominal value” but what does that mean? One interpretation is that it is any good that can be served on a toothpick.

Squiring lawmakers and their aides to golf at St. Andrews in Scotland did happen but it is far from what most lobbyists do. Lobbying is tedious, detail-oriented work that entails hours of sitting in outer offices, standing in hallways and enduring the unique tedium of subcommittee hearings.

As for “undue influence,” most lobbyists can only wish.