Foreign agents say they just advise

November 30, 1992|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- It is a world, at least in the public eye, o long lunches and short phone calls. For a price, the story goes, you can have easy access and influence in a town you barely know, a guide who can open the right doors and talk to the right people.

The people who provide these introductions are the lobbyists for foreign countries and companies, men and women whose clout makes them valuable commodities in a city where clout commands a high price.

But after decades of operating in the shadows of Washington, they have increasingly been thrust into the spotlight, branded as all but traitors by both the right and the left.

Earlier this year, both Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan charged that President Bush's campaign team was riddled with foreign lobbyists wielding undue influence. Later, in a debate, Mr. Perot vowed to put "all these [lobbyists] with thousand-dollar suits and alligator shoes . . . in the Smithsonian, because we're going to get rid of them, and the Congress will be listening to the people."

Often lost amid the political rhetoric is the question of what exactly do these people do? And why are companies like Mitsubishi and countries like Jordan paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it?

A classic case of inside influence at work was the battle between Japanese auto manufacturers and the U.S. Customs Service in 1988 and 1989, as Pat Choate, a Washington economist, charges in his book "Agents of Influence."

After a lengthy investigation, the Customs Service ruled that imported jeeps should be classified as light trucks, not passenger cars, since they were made in truck factories using truck engines. The ruling, though, increased U.S. tariffs on the jeeps tenfold, from 2.5 percent to 25 percent.

With billions of dollars at stake, Japanese auto manufacturers moved. They dispatched 44 lobbyists, according to Mr. Choate, meeting with Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, White House officials and influential members of Congress.

After almost two months of arm-twisting and diplomatic pressure, the Treasury overturned the decision. According to Mr. Choate, it is the first and only time the Treasury Department reversed a Customs Service ruling.

"They spent $3 million on lobbying and saved $1.5 billion -- money that should have gone to the U.S. Treasury," said Mr. Choate. "They bought a decision."

"But the lobbying not only hurt U.S. taxpayers. It cost U.S. automakers billions and caused thousands of autoworkers to lose their jobs."

Lobbyists themselves play down the importance of connections and socializing, saying that critics misunderstand the nature of their work. The reality, they say, is mostly advising and researching, not strong-arming legislators over lunch or taking advantage of the government they know so well.

"It's a matter of helping clients get through the maze of government, getting them familiar with the way Washington works," said Gary Hymel, a former aide to House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill and now chief lobbyist at public relations giant Hill and Knowlton.

Mr. Hymel, whose firm has received millions of dollars from the government of Turkey, Japanese video game maker Nintendo and others, added, "You would be amazed at how little they know about American democracy."

Then there is the art of the schmooze. "I take them up to Capitol Hill, bring them together for lunches with staff members or members [of Congress]," he explained. "I meet with staff to discuss the provisions of relevant bills."

How does he get this kind of access, when it might take months or years for ordinary citizens to arrange a meeting with their congressmen?

"It's the people that I know from my days on the Hill," Mr. Hymel said. "They trust me." Although many critics find just this kind of activity so troubling, Mr. Hymel is adamant that nothing he does is unethical or improper.

"I'm proud of what I do," he said. "All the congressmen are over 21."

"They're not going to try do anything against the interests of their constituents. All I can do is make the arguments and try to win them over," he said.

Lobbyists for overseas interests are required to register with the Justice Department as "foreign agents" and their numbers have been growing in recent years. More than 800 firms are listed in Justice Department records, with about 4,000 individual advocates.

They come from both sides of the political aisle. There are Democrats like Mr. Hymel and Republicans like former Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff Howard Baker, who recently agreed to represent the Kingdom of Jordan.

Some have spent years on Capitol Hill, others in federal agencies, especially the Department of Commerce, or in the White House. Many return to government service after lobbying work, passing through what critics charge is a " revolving door" between public service and private gain.

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