In the 1920s, Arkansas Senator Thaddeus Caraway launched an inquiry into the then-nascent profession of lobbying. Of the 400 or so lobby groups active in Washington, the Caraway committee concluded that 90 percent were fakes, set up for the primary purpose of bilking clients.
Today's lobbyists have branched out. Some may bilk their own clients, like their unsophisticated fore-bears, but most now concentrate on fleecing taxpayers (the wage-earning sort), duping Congress, and ambushing their competitors' clients. At least, that's one conclusion Jeffrey Birnbaum nudges readers toward in his closely observed study of the influence industry.
Lobbyists have come a long way since the Caraway committee pawed through the Washington phone book to find them. Today, they stoke the publicity machine. You can hardly open The Washington Post's Style section or Washingtonian without tripping over yet another breathless profile of Bob Gray, Frank Mankiewicz, or Jack Valenti, who go through the motions of power-brokering (limos to the Hill, cellular-phoning, etc.) even though they haven't wielded real power for decades, if ever.
Birubaum punctures the new stereotype as well as the old image of the cigar-chomping fat cat doling out cash for votes. For The Lobbyists, he spent the better part of two years shadowing a half-dozen of Washington's top corporate lobbyists as they shepherded their pet causes through the tumultuous 101st Congress. What emerges is a new portrait of the profession as a technocratic, unglamorous, at times humiliating business (even if most of the drinks are free). It's a job more like accounting or real estate than being a movie star.
Birnbaum gets at what corporate America really wants from Congress: not pork spending, but tax breaks. Or at the very least, tax hikes for someone else. But by focusing too intently on how his lobbyists get the job done, Birnbaum lets a bigger story get away, namely, the way they have monopolized the crucial debate over tax and spending priorities. This is like attempting to cover a hurricane while ignoring what it blows down.
The author clearly deserves some sort of medal for journalistic bravery simply for enduring two years with the likes of dreary Smart Eizenstat; capital-gains preacher CharIs Walker and his underling, Mark Bloomfield; Maglev railway fanatic Wayne Thevenot; good-time Bobby Juliano, champion of the three-martini-lunch; and truckers' lobbyist Tom Donohue, who devotes his working life to battling excise taxes on diesel fuel. Yawn.
Boredom was the price of his remarkable access to the luminaries of Washington's political nether-world. The dividends are his detailed accounts of the lobbyists' strategizing over weeks, months, even years. Especially good is the section on Coretech, Eizenstat's front group of universities seeking tax handouts for research and development--to benefit Coretech's corporate backers, who ought to be doing R&D with or without write-offs.
Birnbaum deserves special commendation for suffering through such events as a press conference of the Coalition Against Regressive Taxation, a gang of brewers, distillers, cigarette makers, and trucking companies all bravely fighting excise taxes in the name of Joe Six-Pack.
What's amazing is that Reps. Mervyn Dymally, Don Sundquist, and Louis Stokes of Ohio also attended that same inconsequential press conference. Why weren't they busy legislating? The lure of media attention, perhaps? Well, no. Lobbyists greatly outnumbered journalists in the room. More likely, what drew the lawmakers out of their offices was a perverse sense of loyalty.
Birnbaum documents more than one instance of congressmen displaying fealty to lobbyists over their own constituents. As Jim Wright was going down the tubes, for example, his lawyer actually lobbied a group of blue-chip lobbyists in a futile bid to keep the Speaker's job. Wright should have known better: When the first-class cabin fills with smoke, lobbyists are always the first to grab parachutes.
This is the new Co-dependent Congress. The politician-lobbyist affair shows all the danger signs described in self-help books. For one thing, the two groups spend an unhealthy amount of time together: workdays, evening receptions, weekend and recess junkets. When House Democrats retreat to the Greenbrier for three days, lobbyists tag along, paying $6,000 each for a weekend of jitterbugging, skeet-shooting, and "When we get back, there's a little something I'd like to talk to you about .... "Other extracurricular activities--"work" to the lobbyists --range from the nightly lobbyist-funded cocktails-and-hors d'oeuvres soirees to expense-account dinners (all reported on the lobbyists' "disclosure" forms, of course) to more complicated recreational pursuits. Lobbyist J.D. Williams and Rep. Beryl Anthony together rounded a duck-hunting club on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was a good choice of sport for Williams, with many duckless hours in which to talk shop and a lower level of frustration than golf. When Anthony needed cash in the late eighties, Birnbaum reports, another lobbyist gladly bought him out.
Congressmen are allowed to have fun, of course. And a majority of the importunists started as staffers on the Hill, the closest thing to grad school for lobbying. But by constantly consorting with lobbyists-- and depending upon them for fundraising and for information (not to mention the occasional Jet-Ski rentall--Congress comes to view the world through their tinted contact lenses. As one Hill aide puts it to Birnbaum, "Who do these guys hang out with? Rich people. If you spend your time with millionaires, you begin to think like them."
And who do the millionaire lobbyists think like? Their corporate clients. "One result," Birnbaum writes, "is that corporate America, once a perennial sacrificial lamb when it came to government crack-downs, has become something of a sacred cow." What this does to everyone else's tax burden, not to mention the deficit, is left unanswered.
The holy bovine was milked once, via the 1986 tax-reform bill that hiked corporate taxes $120 billion over five years. Birnbaum recounted the story of tax reform in the much more searching Showdown at Gucci Gulch, written with Wall Street Journal colleague Alan Murray. His latest effort charts the lobbyists' efforts to reopen some of the loopholes they lost then and to widen existing ones. Both books confirm that loopholes and tax giveaways are much easier to open than they are to close, at least where powerful corporate interests are involved.
Inexplicably, The Lobbyists all but ignores the resuit of this loophole--jockeying: a government that hemorrhages revenue while imposing an ever greater tax burden upon most of its citizens. William Greider describes this erosion in his slightly preachy Who Will Tell the People. "If Congress had done nothing since 1977 to alter the U.S. tax code ... nine out of ten American families would be paying less," he wrote, citing a 1990 Citizens for Tax Justice study. "Yet, paradoxically, the government would be collecting more revenue each year--almost $70 billion more--if none of those tax bills had been enacted." But Congress just can't keep its mitts off the tax code; change is the only constant here, and change keeps lobbyists in business. What they sell is not access, or influence, but a chance in the great American tax lottery. The corporate client shells out a few hundred bucks an hour in hopes of securing tax breaks worth millions, even billions. If successful, the lobbyist can earn more for the company than its most productive employee. Two magical words are never uttered: "corporate responsibility."
This book's shortcomings are disappointingly obvious, given the skillful narrative and penetrating insight of Gucci Gulch. The Lobbyists is gimped by a structure that flits from capital gains to Jim Wright's woes to excise taxes to HUD. It's as though the CBS Olympic crew somehow seized control of C-Span. "Meanwhile, back at the Ways and Means drafting session...."
We're left with an occasionally diverting catalogue of lobbyist tricks, which include bilking the client, bilking the other guy's client, duping Congress, and fleecing taxpayers. Birnbaum's detailed catalogue of each of these tools of the trade illustrates how lobbyists prosper no matter who presides in the White House or sits in Congress.
Taking advantage of the taxpayers isn't as easy as it was when deficits were small and the press's pork detectors disconnected. Most lobbyists have to be contented with a loophole here and a credit there. Still, a few lobbyists bravely bear the torch for a new age of regression, notably Charis Walker and his American Council for Capital Formation, who since the seventies has pursued one drastic goal: to replace most income, investment, and corporate taxation with a consumption-based VAT, lifting the tax burden from investors and businesses and nailing consumers.
Thanks to the many energetic lobbyists representing cigarettes, liquor, beer, boats, tuxedos, candy, soda pop, meat, chicken, fruit, cars, trucks, bicycles, motion pictures, concrete, manufactured housing, real-estate agents, televisions, computers, cellular phones, cheese, wine, and anything else that can be bought, sold, and consumed--all of whom would fight such a VAT to the death it'll never happen.
Bill Gifford is an associate editor of the Washington City Paper.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1993|
|Previous Article:||My Life as an Author and Editor.|