The way things work in Washington: Lobbyists connect with lawmakers

January 31, 1993|By Dan Fesperman



Jeffrey H. Birnbaum.

Times Books.

334 pages. $24.

Anyone who thinks that today's Washington gridlock has been a mere matter of partisan stubbornness by a Democratic Congress and a Republican president had better read Jeffrey H. Birnbaum's "The Lobbyists." Perhaps President Clinton should read it, too, because even a politician as savvy as he might be surprised, and appalled, at just how sophisticated and debilitating corporate lobbying has become.

Mr. Birnbaum, a Wall Street Journal reporter, spent the 1989-90 session of the 101st Congress closely following the doings of a handful of top corporate lobbyists. He came away with first-hand accounts of just about every strategy and tactic in the business.

Much of his account focuses on the 1990 struggle by Congress to cut the budget deficit down to size. That battle caused President Bush to break his "no new taxes" pledge and caused Congress to miss several deadlines despite going to extraordinary lengths to concentrate on the job.

Painstaking to a fault, "The Lobbyists" initially struggles for coherence as Mr. Birnbaum whacks his way through jungles of acronyms and policy trivia while assembling an unwieldy cast of characters. But once he has amassed the players and drawn their lines of battle, the narrative gets rolling, and he maintains a head of steam throughout the book's latter half.

And even in the occasionally rough early going, there is enough disturbing and infuriating detail to hold the interest of people not wise to the more subtle ways of Washington.

The book's strong first impression is of the clubby coziness between lobbyists and their prey. One symptom is a never-ending barter of small favors and information: A lobbyist keeps her beach house available for weary congressional FTC staffers. A staffer tips off a lobbyist on the likely drift of new tax legislation. A lobbyist provides a member of Congress with a California junket and a bundle of campaign contributions. A lawmaker plugs in a minor but lucrative tax amendment at the request of a lobbyist. A lawmaker's trusted staffer becomes a trusted lobbyist, still providing as much information for his former employer as before.

The result, as the book implicitly shows without once having to preach, is a debilitating atmosphere in which Congress neither thinks clearly nor acts courageously when dealing with its toughest issues.

Congressional courage turns to mush at the thought of all the campaign money lobbyists have at their disposal. Legislators only make matters worse for themselves by almost constantly asking lobbyists for money, nearly to the point of extortion, as the book documents.

Clear thinking, meanwhile, gets fuzzed by the reams of disinformation and subterfuge increasingly employed by the lobbyists. Some use expensive teams of accountants to churn out slanted analyses. Others flood Capitol Hill fax machines, switchboards and mailboxes with phony "grass roots" campaigns that masquerade as public opinion. Reading of such efforts, one is inclined to shout: Read our lips! No new faxes!

Almost any Washington correspondent would tell you that Mr. Birnbaum's portrayal is dead-on accurate, although it is a picture one rarely finds in newspapers because of the sweep and space required to tell such a tale. Even Mr. Birnbaum has been able only to peck at various corners of the story in his reporting for the Journal, and the book's breadth is its greatest strength.

Mr. Birnbaum also avoids the trap of painting either members of Congress or lobbyists as one-dimensional characters worthy only of scorn. But neither do they come across as unwitting victims of some vague, unstoppable "system," as members of Congress invariably claim at the first hint of scandal. They, and the lobbyists, instead come across as human beings who often get carried away with opportunism. Some are likable, some are not.

Many lobbyists portrayed in the book have fallen into their trade by economic necessity, when they could no longer support growing families with the salaries of their more altruistic government careers. But also unmistakable in their accounts is an underlying sense of their profession's collective guilt complex. Between the lines of their self-deprecating banter, one senses an uneasiness with what they have wrought.

So perhaps it's not surprising that one of the book's few heroes turns out to be an electronics industry executive who suffers from a guilty conscience after being recruited for a bogus "grass roots" campaign. The campaign is promoting a broad cut in the capital gains tax, but he eventually decides the cut would be little more than a windfall for the wealthy. So, he helps undermine the effort by counter-lobbying for a far more restrictive cut -- one that he figures might truly help stimulate the long-range growth of small businesses.

It is one of the few glimmers of hope offered amid the hurly-burly realism of "The Lobbyists," and the book's ultimate winners are fear and muddy thinking. The result, as we all know now, is that the massive deficit-cutting efforts of the 101st Congress produced only a watered-down collection of tax-and-spend hokum that, for all the screams and squeals it set off among the lobbyists, hardly made a dent in the deficit.

Give it a read, Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Fesperman covered lobbying as a Washington correspondent for The Sun. He is now a national correspondent.

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