The dog days of Congress

Posted: Aug 07, 2005 12:00 AM

Let's count our blessings. Congress is out of session. The men and women of Congress did their damage, sure enough, but at least during these hot, sticky days of August we're safe. They're on recess. Washington is now left with 35,000 lonely lobbyists.

Of course, some of those lobbyists have followed the politicians home. Why? Politicians and lobbyists go together. Can't have one without the other. Like a horse and carriage. Or, more to the point, love and marriage: a number of lobbyists have spouses who are members of Congress.

Linda Daschle comes to mind. Her husband, Tom, was the Senate Leader while she actively lobbied for a number of powerful interests with business before Congress. When the issue of a conflict of interest arose, we were told the couple didn't discuss it at home. Being married and knowing how hard it is to ever find the time to talk, the story is almost believable.

Senator Daschle is gone, of course, defeated in the last election. But many current members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, have lobbying spouses or relatives.

And increasingly, politicians, when they are through slopping pork for a profession, are themselves becoming paid lobbyists — at top dollar. A study by Congress Watch finds that 43 percent of congressmen who in recent years have left office for a job in the private sector have become lobbyists. (So, take that term "private sector" with a grain of salt.)

Lobbying is a growth industry. In the last five years, the number of paid Washington lobbyists has doubled. And the cost of hiring professional lobbyists has also skyrocketed.

Why the increase in the number and cost of lobbyists?

It is little wonder that folks would want to influence Congress, considering all the money Congress spends and all the meddling Congress does. Federal spending has gone up 30 percent from 2000 to 2004 and Congress just passed energy and transportation bills stuffed with pork and an all-time record number of projects earmarked by individual congressmen.

Yet, the expansion of lobbying even outpaces simple growth in government spending. Maybe the increase is also fueled by the Microsoft story. Most citizens and most small businesses cannot afford the cost of hiring a lobbyist, but Microsoft learned the hard way the cost of not spending enough lobbying politicians.

In 1995, before Bill Gates was hauled before a U.S. Senate committee and Attorney General Janet Reno sued his company on behalf of the federal government, Microsoft seemed only concerned about their computer software business. They had only one paid lobbyist in Washington and spent $16,000 in lobbying. A pittance by Washington standards.

Bill Gates told the U.S. Senate that were Microsoft to lose its share of the market, "Let it be because we failed to innovate fast enough, not because we were hobbled by government intervention." When his plea fell on deaf ears, in self-defense — and in short order — Microsoft put together a top-rate, top-dollar lobbying effort.

From Gates's comments in March until the end of 1998, Microsoft gave more in soft money than it had given in the previous eight years. And the company hired teams of lobbyists. In the 2000 election cycle, Microsoft and company executives gave over $6 million in political contributions.

Charles Lewis, with the Center for Public Integrity, said of Microsoft, "You can only get hit in the head with a two-by-four so many times until you realize you have to deal with it."

There is no mystery here. Business is good for lobbyists because business is good prey for politicians.

Perversely, now that Microsoft has been forced to play politics, the company will no doubt do even better, what with all its resources. The biggest interests are consistently best able to play politics.

"There's unlimited business out there for us," says Robert Livingston, former Louisiana congressman and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, now a lobbyist. "There are agencies that love to do things and acquire new missions. People in industry better have good lobbyists or they're going to get rolled over."

Now, the same Congress that has created, empowered, and funded these predators — er, agencies — will be glad to intercede for your company. No charge. But the prudent approach would be to hire a high-priced lobbyist (or a team of them) to get the ears of some of these congressmen, play golf, and remind them of all your company's support. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.

Standard-issue reformers want to dream up more regulations to impose on lobbyists and congressmen. But such regulations are generally a joke, allowing obvious conflicts while threatening draconian punishments for things outside the legislators' or lobbyists' control. And no matter how intricate these bureaucratic regulations become, when Congress spends trillions of dollars and exerts the kind of regulatory power to make or break one's business, there will be lobbying. Lots of it.

The biggest crock is that congressmen will tell you that everyone else is the problem — the lobbyists, the bureaucracy, the staff, the big corporations, the unions, the courts. But with control of the purse strings, Congress is the most powerful branch of government.

Congress likes the system as it is now, with 98 or 99 percent re-election rates each cycle, with every local and state official dependent on federal monies, with more businessmen spending more and more money to stay in the Honorables' good graces.

In August, mercifully, they leave us be, just so that they can beat the heat. Maybe we should get a law passed to make every month in Washington August. Alas, to get that done, we'll need an awfully good lobbyist.