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The Conservative Curmudgeon
May 9, 2008

Lobbyists: An Increasingly Influential Fourth Branch of Government
by Allan C. Brownfeld

It has been said that journalists and the media constitute an unelected and influential fourth branch of government. While there is some truth to this statement, another unelected group of men and women is increasingly playing the role of an important and little understood government adjunct. That group is lobbyists.


Abramoff Scandal

Some of this phenomenon attracted public attention when prominent lobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted. Abramoff's behavior is symptomatic of the intensified buying and selling of influence over legislation and federal policy that has become endemic in Washington.

In 2004, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings on Abramoff's relations with a half-dozen Indian tribes who had hired him.

Writing in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Andrew Ferguson notes that, "[Indian tribes have become big clients on K Street.... In l988, Congress authorized, and then established regulations over, casino gambling on Indian reservations. The result, from a lobbyist's perspective, couldn't have been happier. Gambling has two main effects. It made some tribes rich -- Indian casinos bring in as much as $30 million a month -- and it permanently entangled those gambling tribes with a Washington bureaucracy that seemed, to an outsider anyway, at once all-powerful and impossible to understand." Ferguson states that a gambling tribe may spend $20,000 a month or more to retain the services of a Washington lobbying firm.

While first-tier lobbying firms in Washington might bill a total of $20 million in fees a year, the Senate committee reported that Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon split as much as $82 million in fees from six tribes over three years. Abramoff also instructed the tribes to make donations to certain Members of Congress and political causes with which he was allied. Despite the fact that it is illegal for a lobbyist to pay for congressional travel, Abramoff charged expenses to his credit card for Rep. Tom Delay's (R-TX) golfing trip to St. Andrews in Scotland in 2000.


Access for Sale

A front-page story in THE HILL, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reports that, "Senate Democrats are offering lobbyists new access to Senate Democratic leaders and lawmakers in exchange for personal contributions of $25,000, the maximum amount allowed to national fundraising committees.... Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 2l, a government watchdog group, said, 'It's an appearance and reality problem in the sense that it explicitly provides people who provide large sums of money with access to lawmakers with the power to affect their interests.'"

Lobbyists are deeply involved with political parties, so the dilemma we face is systemic rather than partisan. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 to over 34,000, while the amount the lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by as much as l00 percent. Lobbying firms cannot hire people fast enough. Starting salaries have risen to about $300,000 a year for the best-connected aides eager to "move downtown" from Capitol Hill or the White House.

Of particular concern is the manner in which former Members of Congress are earning large salaries by attempting to influence their former colleagues for a variety of special interest groups. Two decades ago, most top lawmakers who retired actually went home, dissuaded from staying by the stigma of being lobbyists. Today, however, sky-high lobbying salaries and the tendency of lawmakers to move their families to the Washington area have made lobbying a frequent, even acceptable, career path. According to a study by Public Citizen, lobbying -- once considered a distasteful vocation -- now lures half of all lawmakers to return to the private sector when they leave Congress.

THE WASHINGTON POST reports that, "Lured by the expectation of huge incomes for minimal work, 272 former members of Congress have registered to lobby since l995." Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA), the former chairman of the House committee that regulates drug makers, became president and chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Shortly before leaving Congress, in the 2002 election cycle Tauzin received $9l,500 from drug companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

ROLL CALL, a newspaper that covers the U.S. Congress, reported on April 23 that, "Less than four months after he left office, former Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) has already scored a major payday downtown. The firm he founded with former Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) earned at least $945,000 during its first quarter in business, according to House filings."

"Access equals power in Washington, and few people have greater access than a former member of Congress," said Frank Clemente, director of Congress Watch. "We believe the public has the right to know how frequently their elected representatives change their allegiances and become lobbyists."

Even professional lobbyists are resentful of the movement of former legislators into their domain. Former Members of Congress have many advantages that average lobbyists do not. In the Capitol, former lawmakers can move around with fewer security restrictions than anyone other than active senators and representatives. They can walk into the Members-only gym, the cloakrooms, the private hearing rooms, and the floor of the chambers — access that less favored lobbyists do not have.

Indeed, Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) has proposed paring back the many privileges in the Capitol that former lawmakers enjoy.

Some lobbying groups that focus on advocacy are now building on-the-side "federal marketing" practices that pitch their clients' products to federal contracting officers. The war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have provided vast new areas for such lobbying groups to enter. In the case of Iraq, states Senator John McCain (R-AZ), "It's like a huge pot of honey that's attracting a lot of flies." One alliance of lobbyists, New Bride Strategies, is busy seeking distribution rights for major U.S.
companies producing everything from grain to auto parts to shampoo.

If there are clear ethical standards in Washington, it is difficult to discover what they are. It is high time that lobbyists in Washington be examined more carefully, particularly the role played by former Members of Congress in influencing their former colleagues. The same is true of retired staff members of Congress and White House, retired military officers, and civilian Pentagon officials.

The better we understand the real dynamics at work on Capitol Hill, the better that we, as citizens, can bring our will to bear on what should be a democratic process.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW and a contributing editor to such publications as HUMAN EVENTS, THE ST. CROIX REVIEW, and THE WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS.

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