Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. That means he's the guy in the Senate charged with writing any overhaul of the nation's tax laws. And that means that anyone who has ever worked for him is in high demand in Washington's lobbying shops:
Restaurant chains like McDonald’s want to keep their lucrative tax credit for hiring veterans. Altria, the tobacco giant, wants to cut the corporate tax rate. And Sapphire Energy, a small alternative energy company, is determined to protect a tax incentive it believes could turn algae into a popular motor fuel.
To make their case as Congress prepares to debate a rewrite of the nation’s tax code, this diverse set of businesses has at least one strategy in common: they have retained firms that employ lobbyists who are former aides to Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which will have a crucial role in shaping any legislation.
No other lawmaker on Capitol Hill has such a sizable constellation of former aides working as tax lobbyists, representing blue-chip clients that include telecommunications businesses, oil companies, retailers and financial firms, according to an analysis by LegiStorm, an online database that tracks Congressional staff members and lobbying. At least 28 aides who have worked for Mr. Baucus, Democrat of Montana, since he became the committee chairman in 2001 have lobbied on tax issues during the Obama administration — more than any other current member of Congress, according to the analysis of lobbying filings performed for The New York Times.
That's from Eric Lipton in the New York Times. His story echoes a report from Washington Post reporter Jerry Markon, who last month documented the growing army of corporate and other lobbyists seeking to influence any tax overhaul.
Sean Neary, spokesman for Baucus, does an able job defending his boss, offering examples of times when ex-Baucus aides lobbied for tax changes that Baucus ultimately rejected. And Neary is right: Baucus doubtlessly ignores endless entreaties from former staffers and current contributors.
But the point of hiring Baucus's former aides isn't that they can seamlessly insert any language they want into the final legislation. It's that they have a direct line to Baucus, and to the people around Baucus, and that gives them a huge advantage. The fact is that human beings are more likely to find arguments convincing when they're coming from friends rather than strangers or enemies.
That's the key to most of the lobbying in Washington. It's not about leveraging bribes so much as it's about leveraging relationships -- and that makes it harder to stamp out. I wrote about this in the New York Review of Books awhile back:
If someone walks up to you with a bag full of money and asks you to vote to make coal companies more profitable, that’s not a very persuasive argument. Even if you take the money, you’re going to feel dirty the next day. And most people don’t like to feel dirty. But if one of your smartest, most persuasive friends, a friend you agree with on almost everything, is explaining to you that those environmentalist nuts are going too far again—they’re always doing that, aren’t they?—and they have sneakily tucked a provision into a bill that would make it more expensive for your constituents to buy electricity, that’s very persuasive. And if it’s also in your self-interest to listen to him—and lobbyists are good at nothing if not making sure it is in a politician’s long-term self-interest to listen to them—then all your incentives are pointing in the same direction. You’ll listen.
The outcome of this is a disproportionate number of people who have access to politicians, and who are owed favors by politicians, are lobbyists. And so those politicians are listening to a lot of lobbyists—lobbyists who are being paid by a client to invest in their relationships with politicians in order to advance the client’s interest. On some level, the politicians know that. But it doesn’t feel that way to them. It feels like they’re listening to reasonable arguments by people they like and respect on behalf of interests they’re already sympathetic to. And what’s so wrong with that?
The answer, of course, is that players with money are getting a lot more representation than players without money, not in sacks of cash delivered in the middle of the night, but through people a politician listens to and trusts and even likes having lunch with in the bright light of the day. That’s why savvy and well-funded players will contract with a number of different lobbyists at a number of different firms. Every lobbyist will have legislators he’s close to and legislators he isn’t. Some lobbyists, like Abramoff, specialize in conservatives. Others are more connected among liberals. Some firms have the former chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Others can offer the former legislative director to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. If all a client needed was the money, all he would need to do is cut a big check to one lobbyist. But what you need isn’t the money. It’s the relationships. And each lobbyist only has so many of those.
Which is why it’s so damn difficult to actually kill off lobbying. Outlawing bribes is easy. Outlawing relationships isn’t.