JANUARY 06, 2006
Today on Slate, John Dickerson theorizes that one of the reasons lobbyists thrive in Washington is because of the laziness of members of Congress and their staffers. It’s a point not as obvious as greed for campaign contributions and free golfing, which makes it a bit more interesting to discuss.
In an interview with a successful former lobbyist, Dickerson learns more about the intricacies of influencing members of Congress:
The lobbyist’s first point was that the dance of influence is subtler than people think. If it works right, a member never has to say, even to himself, “I have to vote for this subsidy because lobbyist Jack has just put a check in my pocket.” That happens on occasion, but usually only when a piece of legislation comes up suddenly, or if a lobbyist goes off script. The more effective scenario, for everyone concerned, involves the lobbyist becoming friendly with members of the Congress member’s staff, who research issues and advise him or her what to do and how to vote.
When the member of Congress goes to staff for information, he wants it fast. A staffer can read all available material on the issue, think through the policy, and balance what’s right against the member’s political interests?or he can call his friend Smitty the lobbyist. Smitty knows all about this complicated stuff in the telecommunications bill. He was talking about it just the other day at the Wizards game, which was almost as fun as the Cointreau-and-capon party Smitty hosted at his spread in Great Falls over Labor Day.
Smitty has a solid, intellectually defensible answer to every question. He also knows how an issue is likely to play out politically for the member back in his home district. In a hectic day, Smitty makes a staffer’s day easier. That’s almost as appealing as the skybox and the free drinks. It’s easy to rationalize relying on lobbyists for this kind of help. In asking lobbyists to help them understand technical issues, staffers are doing the same thing journalists do every day?and in fact, journalists often call the same lobbyists for the same reason. They find someone who understands the issue, figuring that they’re smart enough to use the information that rings true and discard the spin.
And so this seems to be the way the system works: staffers turn to lobbyists for quick and knowledgeable information, and then the staffer’s sanitize the information and Senator Whomever is happy. While this is all going, the lobbyist continues to cultivate relationships with staffers to the point where a lucrative lobbying position is offered to a staffer, a job that offers six-digit figures rather than the meager five-digit figures.
The disheartening thought about the ethically-challenged Congress we have is that this questionable behavior would have continued ad infinitum if no one had been caught. Members of Congress and lobbyists are like children stealing from a cookie jar, if you catch them in the act and all you do is tell them to put the cookie back, they will follow your request. But without any serious punishment or rule changes, they will continue to steal as long as backs are turned.
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