Lobbyists Retreat but Never Surrender
by Michael Winship
With George Washington’s birthday comes the attendant mythology, hatchet and cherry tree, wooden teeth, throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River – or the Rappahannock.
Of course, as the old joke goes, a dollar went a lot further then. Today, if you tried to hurl a silver dollar across the Potomac, chances are some member of Congress would snatch it in flight like one of those nature film grizzly bears grabbing a salmon in mid-leap.
And the more likely person doing the throwing would be a lobbyist, tossing coins in the air to keep the playful legislator’s attention. The other day, the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reported that more than 15,600 companies spent at least $3.2 billion on federal lobbying last year. Five hundred thirty-five members of the House and Senate, more than 13,000 registered lobbyists in DC – you do the math.
This week, White House Special Counsel Norm Eisen blogged about President Obama’s plans to further crack down on lobbyists by updating the Lobbying Disclosure Act and getting Congress to mandate “low-dollar limits on the contributions lobbyists may bundle or make to candidates for federal office,” bundling being that insidious practice by which you raise a lot of money by hitting up a number of people for contributions and “bundling” their donations together.
Good luck with that, Norm. As we’ve seen, lobbyists are brilliantly devious at figuring out ways into the inner sanctums, and whoever’s behind the door tends to welcome them with open arms, as long as they’ve arrived with the secret password – “Cash.” Example: last weekend, both Democratic and Republican members of Congress held retreats, ostensibly to go away some place and sagely contemplate their navels, discussing issues and plotting strategy. Guess who else was there?
The House Republican Caucus chose to stay near Washington at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, all the easier for lobbyists to make a quick sprint up Interstate 95 and pitch woo. Among those addressing the Caucus were President Obama – you’ve seen the video of his give-and-take with them last Friday – and the ubiquitous former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the GOP equivalent of a rash that won’t go away.
The meeting was organized by the Congressional Institute, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to helping Members of Congress better serve their constituents and helping their constituents better understand the operations of the national legislature.” It holds seminars for legislators and their staffs, publishes a handbook on floor procedure and sponsors the annual Congressional Art Competition.
The reality, as the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch Web site reports, is that the Congressional Institute is “funded by\ corporate contributions and run by top Republican lobbyists.” Twelve of its 14 board members are registered lobbyists, including its chair, Daniel Meyer of The Duberstein Group, a lobby firm founded by former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein; vice chair Barbara Morris-Lent, who has been a consultant to Verizon and is the wife of former Republican Congressman Norman Lent; and its secretary Gary Andres, a columnist for Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing Weekly Standard and vice president of public policy and research for the lobby company Dutko Worldwide. Many of them are former Republican congressional staff members; two of them worked for ex-Speaker Gingrich.
A list of the Congressional Institute’s financial contributors reads like a Who’s Who of corporate America: among them have been General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Time Warner, UPS, Merck and tobacco giant Altria.
Lee Fang, a researcher for the progressive Center for American Progress Action Fund, paid a visit on the Republicans at their Baltimore hotel. In the time before Congressional Institute representatives told him to scram or face arrest, he found out quite a lot.The aforementioned Dan Meyer was on his way to the retreat – his Duberstein clients include Goldman Sachs, BP, HealthNet and AHIP, the health insurance industry trade group that fought tooth and nail againstthe public option in the health care fight. Also in attendance, according to Fang, was Institute board member Michael Johnson. A lobbyist at the OB-C Group, Johnson “touts himself as a ‘Republican heavyweight’ whose firm represents the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, JPMorgan Chase, and the health insurance giant\ WellPoint.” And as he was pointed to the exit, Fang spotted John Sampson, chief lobbyist for Microsoft. Meanwhile, Democrats chose to bask in sunnier climes, and some select lobbyists decided to grab their towels and Jamba Juice and enjoy the balmy weather with them. A dozen senators headlined the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s winter retreat at a Ritz Carlton resort in Miami Beach, a cozy little hideaway with 375 guest rooms, “sumptuous” marble baths, spa and a $2 million dollar art collection.
The senators included DSCC chair Robert Menendez, Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Claire McCaskill and Bernie Sanders. Riding in the wake of their surf were 108 lobbyists – special guests who shared meals, receptions and “informal conversations” with the legislators. According to the Web site Politico.com, among those attending were “top lobbying officials for many of the industries Democrats regularly attack: Represented were the American Bankers Association, the tobacco company Altria, the oil company Marathon, several drug manufacturers, the defense contractor Lockheed, and most of the large independent lobbying firms.”
The price of admittance wasn’t released but the maxiumun contribution to the DSCC for similar events is $30,000 a head. Interesting when compared to recent remarks by Senator Menendez. Politico’s Ben Smith quoted a January 27 Menendez press release: “In the upcoming elections, voter will face a choice between Republicans who are standing with Wall Streetfat cats, bankers and insurance companies – or Democrats who are working hard to clean up the mess we inherited by putting the people’s interests ahead of the special interests.”
Hearing all this makes me think we should stage a national intervention and ship the entire 111th Congress off to a different kind of retreat, a sort of political rehab facility. They would be kept isolated from lobbyists and special interests for as many weeks as it takes for them to be weaned from money and pork and made to pay attention to the needs of their constituents – and the nation.
There would be lectures, motivational speakers, readings from the Federalist Papers, and daily screenings of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” And emblazoned across its entryway would be a denunciation of money and politics, Thomas Jefferson’s 1816 battle cry to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
I know it’s just a fantasy, but I feel better already.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.