Confessions of a former Lobbyist

Confessions of a former Lobbyist
Pixabay Images, US Capitol Building

I was a Washington lobbyist for over two decades. I was one of the 30,000 registered lobbyists who went to the Capitol daily to represent client interests. In the early 90’s, I was profiled by CBS Radio for The Osgood File.

At the time, some scandal had hit and as usual, the finger was pointed at the lobbyists. The agreement was that a Producer would be with me and we wouldn’t disclose to those I lobbied that he worked for CBS. It was risky for me. Congressmen don’t like jump journalism

The Producer they sent to Washington from New York City followed me from a 6:30 AM breakfast meeting in a Federal Agency, to meetings in my office, then to the Hill. We ended the day with two fundraisers on the Hill and a black-tie dinner that night. His views of what lobbyists changed radically during the day.

As Congress starts to consider Trump’s zombie apocalypse tax bill, my former colleagues at the K Street Canyon will start to get busy. On social media and from my colleagues in the press, I’m starting to read a lot of misconceptions about the tax bill and lobbyists.

There are a lot of misconceptions about lobbying that need to be cleared up.

The majority of Lobbyists do not bribe Members of Congress. We can thank popular culture for this myth. There have been lobbyists who have gone to prison for bribery. The reason it is a scandal when it comes out in the press is that it is rare.

Jack Abramoff is perhaps the most famous Lobbyist to end up in trouble. After prison, Jack wrote a book which Hollywood made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson. He’s been a fixture in popular culture since his release from prison.

Mr. Abramoff is someone the NY Times parades when it is time to write about corruption. The way Mr. Abramoff lobbied is not the norm. He has become a corruption evangelist since being released from prison. To listen to Mr. Abramoff, the entire world of lobbying is played by his rules. He’s even so bold as to say the Supreme Court is clueless about the “problem” on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Abramoff’s view of Washington is the exception. Of the 30,000 or so registered lobbyists, few would consider offering or participating in a bribe. Bribery is not a part of lobbying in a widespread manner. My firm had a policy of steering clear of offices on the take. If you want to know who is ethical and who isn’t ask any lobbyist who handles defense or tax-related issues. You find out fast who the bad apples are on The Hill.

Why not make lobbying illegal?

There are several reasons not to outlaw lobbying. Lobbying is protected free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution. If you read the First Amendment you see a prohibition on Congress making laws about petitioning the Government for a redress of grievances. Most people think that refers to protests in the street. It does cover marches and protests but it also covers lobbying.

In an article in the NY Times, Mr. Abramoff had the audacity to say the US Supreme Court was clueless about corruption in Washington. They aren’t supposed to be clued in about corruption in Washington. They are not an investigative agency. What they are supposed to be clued in about is the Constitution. On that topic, they are very clued in and it is the basis of their decisions.

You wouldn’t want to try to run our society without lobbyists. We don’t elect the crème of the crop to represent us in Washington. Members of Congress have more in common with a Prom King or Prom Queen than they do Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton.

The 535 Members of Congress do not have all the expertise it takes to run the most complex nation and economy in the world. Sometimes they do things that are ridiculous and would cost thousands of jobs if their ideas became law.

Lobbyists provide technical information and real-world information Congress does not have. Members of the House and Senate are not oracles. They don’t have the ability to predict what laws would be good or bad for the nation, for an industry, or for the military. They depend on staff. The staff and the members depend on lobbyists. Who knows what is good or bad for an industry better than the industry itself?

About Washington and money.

There were a lot of scandals in my over two decades in Washington. Many of them were about money. Money is a reality in Washington and the rules governing money are mostly window-dressing.

Popular culture puts an undue emphasis on entertainment. Scores of articles have been written by reporters who swoon over tickets to professional sporting events and concerts being handed out. Expensive dinners at 5-star restaurants have come under attack as well as free booze and food at receptions on the Hill.

We hold Congress to a higher standard than we do industry. Business entertainment is part of commerce. It is even tax-deductible in nearly all instances. Not with Congress. The receptions on the Hill must be a buffet. If a Member of Congress is going to eat the same 5-star meal he would have at the restaurant downtown he must do it standing up.

There are big loopholes in laws governing entertainment, too. If you go to Capital One Arena in Washington to watch the NBA Wizards play a game, you will see the rich and famous in the luxury boxes owned by companies and trade associations. The skybox is rented separately and the ticket is miraculously priced at the level of Congressional limits for sports and entertainment.

When you hire a lobbyist, you are not hiring a fixer. You’re hiring access to high levels of the Government. You hire someone who can get face time with Congress or the Administration to make your case. Entertainment is one way to get that face time.

Yes, the Representatives and Senators want something in return

This is where it gets murky. It is also where lobbyists are caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s popular to blame the lobbyists for corruption in Washington. Often, the finger is being pointed in the wrong direction. Lobbyists don’t speak out to correct the record. They fear of losing access to a Members of Congress if they speak out.

I once represented a trade association that was advocating for an independent nation during the break-up of Yugoslavia. The nation was engaged in a war of independence, and I was helping a trade group that had been formed.

The nation in question had suffered greatly and had a huge refugee problem. Help was needed to feed and clothe refugees. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Americares were in the region offering help. They were overwhelmed and needed additional resources.

Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-TX) agreed to be our champion. Charlie was senior on the Appropriations Committee. There was a US Government program we could hook onto so we didn’t need authorization. We needed funds earmarked for the refugees. We needed $25 million dollars in pork.

The Appropriations Bill had already passed the House and had moved to the Senate. To get the language in the Senate Bill, I took language to Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). He agreed to drop in the amendment and the provision was in the Senate Bill.

Since it was in the Senate Bill and not the House Bill, the provision could be lost in the conference between House and Senate. Charlie was very helpful. He opened doors with Congressman David Obey (D-WI) who was the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at the time. He also opened the doors with other members of the Committee so that when our provision came up in the conference, it was included in the final conference report. It became the law of the land.

The day after the vote my phone got very busy. Charlie Wilson wanted to see me. He wanted a fundraiser and the tab was 50,000 dollars in campaign contributions. Charlie was not alone. I saw Congressman Obey’s Chief of Staff in the hallway. He told me directly, the Chairman wants money, 25,000 dollars. Senator Specter asked for $25,000. Senator Al D’Amato (R-NY) wanted $35,000 dollars in contributions. Even Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) had his hand out and he had voted against our provision.

Sensenbrenner’s Chief of Staff exploded when I told him no and asked if he had an opponent we could donate to?

I could write two kinds of lists at this point. One list would be the aggressive fundraisers in Congress. The second list would be the non-aggressive fundraisers in Congress. The second list would be the shorter of the two and every name on it would be a retiring Member. Every Member has their hand out and they have it out all the time.

The reason they do is the average cost of a race for a House seat is almost 2 million dollars. The average Senate race is over 10 million dollars. That money is not coming in from small contributions. If a Member of Congress isn’t aggressive at fundraising then they will not stay in Congress long.

Is there a fix? Of course, there is a fix but you and I don’t want to pay for it. Public financing of political campaigns would have to include all candidates. While it would encourage participation by new people, the costs could become one of the major federal expenditures. That is the only way to take money out of politics.

Is it an idea whose time has come? I wish it had come 30 years ago. In that report for CBS, the Producer saw me spend at least half my day raising money for politicians. He learned when you hire a lobbyist you are also hiring a fundraiser for Congress.

We need to fix the system.

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