“The Lobbyists” by Wall Street Journal Washington reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum is an unusual book. While an insider’s story of a very exclusive game, it is told with such honesty that even jaded readers will be taken aback. Birnbaum strips away the secrecy and with riveting detail chronicles “the brazen manipulation of both lawmakers and the public” by a lobbying industry now 80,000 strong (double what it was 10 years ago).
Focusing on the 101st Congress (1989-1990), Birnbaum illustrates how former congressional and White House staffers, by marketing their government connections for handsome fees, “bend the political process on behalf of the richest business interests in the country.” For many, he observes, public service has become essentially an “internship” on the way to the more lucrative job of corporate lobbying. Half the congressional staff that worked on the 1986 Tax Reform Act, for example, now lobby for corporations that were adversely affected.
Birnbaum gives us a fascinating glimpse into the subtle special-interest shell games that create what political analyst Kevin Phillips has called “greedlock.” We see, for instance, how Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, devised a clever ploy to defeat a capital-gains-tax reduction sought by President Bush. Finding himself one vote short of the total required to defeat the reduction, Bentsen wooed Arkansas Sen. David Pryor by offering one of Pryor’s valued constituencies--wealthy timber interests--a new and more obscure tax break called “income averaging.” In this Orwellian Washington, where things are often the opposite of what they appear to be, Bentsen defeated George Bush’s tax break for the wealthy with other tax breaks for the wealthy.
As sometimes happens in Washington, Bentsen’s cynical maneuver was short-lived. Sen. Pryor the next day took to the Senate floor and confessed that the tax- drafting session had turned into a “feeding frenzy” that needed to be reconsidered. Newspaper articles and editorials lambasted the senators for their special-interest greed and the leadership had to strip out the revenue-losing provisions.
But more subtle and equally cynical maneuvers did manage to escape serious public scrutiny in 1989. Birnbaum shows how political-action committees (PACs) for utility companies used $10.3 million in Congressional campaign contributions to insert and then to maintain an obscure provision in federal law that delayed for up to 30 years repayment of funds that utility companies had improperly collected from ratepayers. The delay in repayment was estimated to save the utilities $19 billion!
Birnbaum finds an ideal symbol of the incestuousness of American business and government in a 19-car train that in early 1989 hauled several dozen lobbyists and 142 Democratic members of the House, together with their families, from Washington to a posh resort in White Sulfur Springs, Va. “The train itself,” Birnbaum writes, “and the weekend that lay ahead, were a microcosm of Washington: lawmakers and lobbyists moving together in a largely closed and isolated system, discussing decisions that affect millions of other Americans.”
Not all of the lobbyists’ machinations, however, take place behind the scenes. In a series of revealing vignettes, Birnbaum shows how the American Council on Capital Formation spends a million dollars each year “to dress up its efforts to lower corporate taxes in the garb of economic theory.” The council, working as a front for some of the biggest corporations in the world, dedicates itself to “changing” (i.e. distorting) the terms of public debate. Big notions like “capital formation” and the need for government incentives for “savings and investment” are its stock in trade. “The rhetoric had all the political sanctity of motherhood,” Birnbaum writes, “and cleverly masked the lobbyists’ deeper intention: to channel more government aid to corporations.” In his characteristically cavalier fashion, Mark Bloomfield, the president of the council, says: “Savings is an all-American word. I’ve tried it on a number of members. It’s a good buzzword.”
Birnbaum succinctly tells the story of how former Congressman Tony Coelho radically transformed the Democratic Party--in fact, “sold its soul to the special interests"--by aggressively marketing traditionally pro-labor Democrats as increasingly pro-business. Coelho designed special Democratic candidate forums for corporate PAC managers. These forums, nicknamed “meat markets” or “cattle calls,” became so effective that Democrats have ever since collected more PAC dollars that Republicans.
“Money is power,” said Democratic Rep. Bill Alexander of Arkansas. Or, as Sen. Brock Adams of Washington explained in a marvelous example of doublespeak, “Access to Congress can’t be bought, but it can be acquired with the help of campaign contributions.”
Money, nevertheless, isn’t the only way lobbyists get what they want. Through “Washington-based direct-mail and telemarketing wizardry, corporations can solicit letters and phone calls from voters in any district in the nation that advocate almost any side of any issue” and thereby manufacture the powerful illusion of grass-roots support. This “sophisticated racket,” as Birnbaum calls it, is one of the fastest-growing businesses in Washington. And no wonder, given the rewards it offers the lobbyists: Former Senate staffer Jack Bonner, for instance, earned $3 million in one month stirring up 100,000 messages to Capitol Hill for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Assn. His assignment was to weaken federal cost containment of drugs purchased under the Medicare program. Birnbaum notes that Bonner charged a special price for letters or calls he elicited from local ministers and community activists.
As one wades through this impressively substantiated indictment of Washington intrigue, the assault on representative government in America becomes undeniable. Private interests now command such intellectual and financial resources that they can literally shape public debate and even simulate citizen participation. National accounting firms hire away so many government tax specialists that they form a type of “shadow government” that dwarfs their government counterparts.
Having come through a year of presidential campaigning--separated by a $100 donation limit from Washington power but in continuous confrontation with it--I saw up close the disorders that have grown from this assault on democracy: the special-interest money, the media obsession with polls and insider politics, the despair and alienation of the powerless, the comfortable isolation of the political class.
Birnbaum fails to show the ominous way in which today’s corporate lobbying contributes to these festering problems and to others such as decaying cities, growing income inequality and public distrust of politics. “The Lobbyists,” however, remains a book of incalculable value for its haunting portrait of how a majority has faded into the role of restive spectator as the governing process becomes increasingly directed by a powerful and protected few.