Lobbying: Lawmakers for Sale

Money, applied strategically to the right politician as a political contribution, or a price of admission to a “fund-raiser” that you can attend for a few hundred or thousand dollars on Capitol Hill. Sometimes the lobbyists hold the fundraiser which relieves the lawmaker the burden of collecting his own campaign contributions. There are meals served, usually steak, lobster, shrimp, caviar and wine. There are gifts and vacations which general revolve around golf. There are quid pro quo collaborative efforts, with lobbyists writing the bills that benefit them while they make available their resources for the politicians to travel and even run their political campaigns.

Lobbying is Washington’s biggest business. It has created a new aristocracy in America.  The road to riches is the world-renown K Street. Lobbying firms hire more (some estimates that go as high as 80,000 may not be inaccurate), pay more and charge more to influence government. There are secrets that they don’t want to disclose, like gifts and donations to pundits and journalists, subsidies to friendly think-tanks, establishment and support of fake grassroots groups, the carrots dangled to cooperative regulators, judges and elected officials waiting for them if and when they decide to move to the private sector. Former committee members deal in access to committee staff members. They trade their special relationship to their old boss.

A lobbyist comes in various shades and forms. He is a specialist in human friendship, which is a valuable commodity in Washington; an amiable person as required by his profession. Some are con men, ripping off their clients, historically drawn to gambling and casinos. Some journalists describe them in the language of pimps and prostitutes. The industry is difficult to categorize. Is it related to advertising or a branch of marketing? Are they politicians or a form of legal practice in which laws are made? Whatever it is, it is a signature activity of conservative governance that lobbying is how money casts its votes.

In these days of run-away greed, nearly all jobs are off-shored, e.g., ship your factories to China or Mexico, send your back office and support services to India, but lobbyists must remain in Washington. At 101 Constitution Avenue (the closest commercial property to the Capitol building), lobbyists (called “members”) can scoot over and back in a matter of minutes. Its upper stories provide an astonishing view of the Capitol Dome, where fundraisers can be held against a striking panorama. Smaller balconies on the lower floors can hold their own parties with the same backdrop.

If you want to see “democracy in action,” it is a waste of time for a visitor to Washington to view the galleries of the Capitol building. If they are lucky, they might see one or two legislators mumbling in front of C-Span cameras for consumption in their home states. To avoid disillusionment, the action is on the ground floor of 101 Constitution Avenue which houses Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant. This is the place for political spectatorship where you see problems being resolved and do it over a meal. This is persuasion-for-hire in Washington. If the timing is right, you may even see your own congressman in action in this décor, working with non-members, with people just like you, except that they are far richer and more important people than you.

The other side of the coin is the chain of corruption and infamy connected with lobbying, e.g., Ulysses S. Grant Administration, Credit Mobiliere, Teapot Dome, Bobby Baker, Watergate, Koreagate,  Deavergate, Clinton’s White House coffee and availability of Lincoln bedroom to large contributors, Jack Abramoff. Lobbying continues to grow. Despite the anti-K Street outrage in 1986, their number has doubled in the preceding 10 years, expanding so fast to saturation. By 1992 the number doubled again. The current system for registering them gives as a smaller number (around 35k—most conservative figure). Whenever the number is cited, it is said to represent a shocking increase in size, doubling in only 5 years. Lobby shops charged their clients twice as much in 2005 as they did in 2000. The standard salary of a staffer fresh from Capitol Hill is $300k, up by more than $100k in 2001. Who cares; it comes out of the government and taxpayers’ pocket anyway. They continue to do what they were doing before Obama who failed in his promise to stamp them out. What is surprising is that with more lobbyists around, the price should come down; such is not the case; the opposite is true.

Lobbyists come from both parties. They make political contributions to members of both parties. Though they own most members of Congress, e.g., Sen. Jim DeMint (D-SC), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), etc., Rep. John Boehner (D-OH), Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), etc. it is “politically neutral” and is best evaluated as a modern normal business practice. The quick rise of Gerald Cassidy reveals the crass aspect of lobbying., e.g., selling earmarks, inserted by elected officials into some larger piece of legislation. Cassidy used a group of salesmen working on commission to travel the country selling the idea of earmarks to potential clients. Takers turned up by the salesmen would pay a retainer to Cassidy; clients would eventually get their millions in earmarks, and legislators responsible for inserting the earmarks got a nice campaign contribution. All parties, except the taxpayers, profited handsomely for their enterprise.

There is competition and bipartisanship. Many diverse lobbies fight with one another, but all of them, working in collaboration, are struggling to capture the government itself on behalf of those who could afford their fees. It has not always been a smooth flight for lobbyists. In the 1970s and 1980s, conservatives routinely attacked lobbying on the grounds that by asking for bailouts and special favors, K Street had softened Capitalism’s competitive edge and encouraged government to grow big. Even Ronald Reagan criticized lobbyists as part of the “buddy system” with everyone in the city doing favors for everyone else and leaving taxpayers to get the bill. Even Gingrich denounced what he called “money politics.”  But that was then. They have come a long way to be detested and despised by the American people for the bad name they give Washington.

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