Friday, February 18, 2005
Tightening the reins of power: The reverse lobby
LOBBY - A group, organization or association seeking to influence the passage or defeat of legislation. Originally the term referred to persons frequenting the lobbies or corridors of legislative chambers in order to speak to lawmakers.
A "lobbyist" is the actual person or entity that does the work of the lobby.
This understanding of the term is passé. In the old system the lobbyist was likely to be a former legislator or bureaucrat who worked in the section of the government that he or she lobbied. To advance their agenda, businesses and non-profits hired lobbyists for their presumed access to the corridors of power. It was a wonderfully corrupt system, but at least everybody understood the rules.
Federal lobbyists frequently locate themselves along K Street in Washington, DC. This is Washington's "business district."
According to Nicholas Confessore of the Washington Monthly (all emphasis is mine),
The need to cultivate them [the Democrats] meant that K Street's immediate interests would never align with the GOP's even if, more often than not, their long-term interests did. As a result, there emerged a broadly bipartisan lobbying culture. To facilitate broad access, most trade associations hired lobbyists from both parties, who were expected to be pragmatic and nonideological. Although certain industries may have had traditional ties to one party, most corporate PACs distributed money roughly equally.
Most importantly, the lobbyist was paid to represent the client's interests. For however much we might rue such a system of pay-to-play, it did give outside interests a voice in government.
But that system has now been stood on its head. As Confessore puts it,
The corporate lobbyists who once ran the show, loyal only to the parochial interests of their employer, are being replaced by party activists who are loyal first and foremost to the GOP.
I won't go into the history of this seachange. (I recommend Confessore's article for this.) Instead I want to note some of its effects.
Many of you will be familiar with the recent cancellation by PBS of an episode of their children's cartoon "Postcards from Buster." It was done at the behest of Margaret Spellings, Bush's new Secretary of Education. Buster the rabbit visited children in two Lesbian households. He learned how to milk cows. It now appears that Buster will not be allowed to milk cows with children of Lesbians. How's that for an educational message?
But in these appalling times, little surprises me when it comes to overtly anti-gay activities by the government, but the reported mechanism did.
According to Eric Boehlert of Salon,
... one outside lobbyist for PBS, Karen Nussle, the wife of Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, told executives at the network that if they went ahead and aired the disputed "Buster" episode, she would not be able to help them politically. "She's a good representative to the Republican Congress, and if they lost her that would set the relationship back and PBS would be left exposed on the Hill," says the source, who adds that PBS's main lobbyist, John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, also warned the network against fighting the administration. "He told them, 'This threatens our relationship by making Margaret [Spellings] have to deal with this," says the source. Lawson, who is Spellings' brother-in-law and who attended her swearing-in ceremony this week, declined to comment for this article. Nussle did not return calls seeking comment.
What we have here is a group of lobbyists not representing the interests of their employer PBS, but who instead direct PBS as to what it should do in order not to offend the government.
This is pretty serious, folks.
Returning to Confessore, he writes—
Such is the GOP's influence that it has been able to marshal on behalf of party objectives not just corporate lobbyists, but the corporations themselves. During the Iraq war, for instance, the media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications Inc. had its stations sponsor pro-war rallies nationwide and even banned the Dixie Chicks, who had criticized White House policy, from its national play list. Likewise, last spring Norquist and the White House convinced a number of corporations and financial services firms to lobby customers to support Bush's dividends tax cut. Firms like General Motors and Verizon included flyers touting the plan with dividends checks mailed to stockholders; Morgan Stanley included a letter from its CEO with the annual report it mailed to millions of customers.
All this was reinforced when I came upon an article by Alexander Bolton in The Hill. Lobbyists, it seems, are being used by the Republicans to put pressure on businesses to support their campaign against Social Security.
“The dirty little secret on K Street is that these Republican lobbyists representing big corporations are doing everything to get Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies involved in underwriting the campaign on Social Security,” said one Democratic lobbyist who has regularly attended meetings with Democratic leadership staff. “They’re further out ahead than the companies they represent.”
Derrick Max, the executive director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, a coalition of business groups devoted to pushing Bush’s plan inside the Beltway, acknowledged that Republican lobbyists are trying to convince business to support Social Security reform.
The Democrats are now said to be meeting with Democratic lobbyists—
... Reid and Pelosi are also waging a quieter battle to influence Wall Street and the executives of Fortune 500 companies. Pelosi’s staff meets weekly with key Democratic K Street lobbyists and has talked about Social Security, a Democratic aide said. Since taking over as Senate minority leader, Reid has organized biweekly meetings with Democratic lobbyists known as the Monday Group. Senate Democratic staff gave the group a presentation on Social Security and the budget Tuesday.
The change in the role of "lobbyist" is not just that many of them now represent the government's interests rather than those of their own clients. It appears that, at least when it comes to the Democrats, they no longer have to seek out the legislators; the legislators are lobbying them.