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K Street Confidential

Jeff Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2004; 1:00 PM

How influential are D.C. lobbyists in crafting legislation and swaying politicians? Which are the big lobbying firms and players? What is the latest news from K Street?

Washington Post writer Jeff Birnbaum was online to discuss his latest K Street Confidential column, "Capitol Hill Listens to Coalitions," lobbying and the intersection between government and the rest of the world.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Columbus, Ohio: Dear Mr. Birnbaum:

Do the "good guys" have a snow ball's chance in D.C. these days? It seems as though only big business and large donors have any hope of impacting public policy. I realize that this scenario is not new, but as an advocate for non-profit causes, I am increasingly discouraged by the lack of access to decision-makers and the absence of consequences to those who corrupt the system.

Jeff Birnbaum: Greetings everyone! Thanks so much for writing in.


Toronto, Canada: Jeff, Thank you for the enlightening article. In your opinion, what is they best way for grassroots groups concerned with non-mainstream issues to use coalitions to push their agendas? You allude to such groups as the "rank and file," but are they always the grist in the mill? How can they be heard in Big Boy D.C. coalition politics?

Jeff Birnbaum: Thank you. I'm glad you liked the story. I had fun writing it. All sorts of groups can lobby in coalitions. And everyone in a coalition joins it because the goal is shared. So all sorts of groups, corporate and noncorporate, can push their agendas, as long as they are shared. The broader the coalition, the more widely accepted are those goals on the lawmakers and other decision makers. I hope this helps.


Jeff Birnbaum: I like this question quite a bit:
"Do the "good guys" have a snow ball's chance in D.C. these days? It seems as though only big business and large donors have any hope of impacting public policy. I realize that this scenario is not new, but as an advocate for non-profit causes, I am increasingly discouraged by the lack of access to decision-makers and the absence of consequences to those who corrupt the system."

Everyone has a chance. That's the beauty of our system of government. I would lie if I said monied interests don't have an advantage. They do. But money isn't everything, and lots of causes that aren't wealthy get very far these days. The Internet is a great leveler. And in general, the groups that stir the appearance at least of the greatest public demand are the groups that tend to win in the end.


Arlington, Va.: I don't think your column today fully explored the opportunities for abuse with coalitions. Loopholes allow individuals or corporations to hide behind unorganized coalitions that exist only on paper, avoiding the lobbyist disclosure rules. Coalitions also provide the appearance of broad support where no such support exists.

Legislation was introduced a couple of years ago to close these loopholes and require coalitions to disclose the sources of their funding the same way that lobbyists must for non-coalition clients. I doubt this legislation has any hope in the current "anything goes" environment.

I think the legislation came about following some revelations about obscure-sounding tax coaltions that were really fronts for companies like Enron and individuals who wanted to renounce their U.S. citizenship for tax reasons.

Jeff Birnbaum: I agree with you that some groups obscure their true intentions with apple-pie-sounding names. I tried to get that across but maybe I didn't write it forcefully enough. I recall the legislation you mention and it would be a lovely idea if it could ever work. How do you insist on clarity of expression? That's a hard thing to do let alone legislate. I agree with your sentiment, however.


Baltimore, Md.: Does money buy access or votes? My experience is that once you had access as a lobbyist only 5 percent of the job was done. After that you formed coalitions, wrote drafts, negotiated with other interest groups, brought other committees into the picture and saw the process through. Money was a ticket of admission to a theater in which nothing was playing unless you got onto the stage and did the choreography, acting and directing. Is that still true? It has been twenty years since I was an active lobbyist in Washington.

Jeff Birnbaum: I agree with you completely. Money is the fundamental first step in lobbying. But it is by no means the end all and be all. Lobbyists must persuade lawmakers and decisionmakers. That takes a lot of work and information. And a lot of luck too. The whole reason I'm writing about the intersection of business and government is that there's so much more to lobbying, in the largest sense, than just campaign donations. At the same time, it's important to realize that lobbyists can't make much of a go of it unless they are players in the money game. I know a lobbyist who convenes fundraisers for every senator up for reelection from his party in even-numbered years. That way he can get his calls returned for his clients. If he didn't do that kind of money raising, he couldn't work in this town. Sad but true.


Anonymous: What sorts of people do lobbying firms tend to attract? Is the person you profiled today -- a once Broadway actor -- typical?

Jeff Birnbaum: I don't know of any other singing lobbyists, though I'm sure there are plenty. There's no such thing as a typical lobbyist. They come from all walks of life. They are fundraisers, gladhanders, scholars, advertising experts, PR execs, accountants, you name it. Many have been in government for at least a little while. Some for a long period. They all have to have a real interest in the way governement operates. And they have to have patience. Getting things done in official DC can take months and usually years.


Washington, D.C.: Since Washington influentials are more and more turning to the online medium to get their news and research info, do you see the more savvy coalitions placing their campaign ad messages in this medium?

Jeff Birnbaum: Yes, the Internet is a growing and increasingly powerful tool for all sorts of things, including lobbying. I don't think there's a lobbyist anywhere who doesn't do part of his or her business on the web. I would be glad to hear from anyone who knows of any new cool uses of the Internet in the lobbying world. Wouldn't you? Keep your cards and letters (and e-mails) coming: to kstreetconfidential@washpost.com !


Atlanta, Ga.: The world of lobbying seems to incorporate a great many skills and talents. How can one break into this very lucrative business?

Jeff Birnbaum: I would suggest you work on Capitol Hill for a while. Or maybe in the executive branch of government. There's no substitute for working on the inside before you go outside and try to make things happen. A law degree or some advanced degree also wouldn't hurt. Government these days is a very intricate place.


Harrisonburg, Va.: Seeing that you have an insider's view of the way things are handled in DC, are there any lobbying regulations you would like to see enacted? Any you think should be tossed out?

Jeff Birnbaum: I don't generally take sides on these things. But one thing is pretty clear: there's not a lot of enforcement of lobbying rules and regs. Some day that will cause a problem of some sort. If anyone has an example of a lobbying rule, or a gift-ban rule, being violated, please e-mail me at kstreetconfidential@washpost.com. Thanks!


Washington, D.C.: Hi Jeff. Is money paid to lobbying firms by publicly held companies considered public information? For example, how can I find out how much Fannie Mae paid to its lobbyists last year?

Jeff Birnbaum: Everyone who hires a lobbyist has to disclose that fact to the Congress. You can look at senate.gov and look for lobbying disclosures and find out exactly how much and to whom Fannie Mae or any other company has paid for lobbying. Another great, free source is opensecrets.org. Give a look. Fannie Mae has spent a lot for a long time on lobbyists.


Washington, D.C.: How can a coalition composed of non-profits (without paid lobbyists) best get "through the din" on the Hill, when we're up against high-priced, connected lobbyists (in the field of health)?

Jeff Birnbaum: The best way for anyone to get through is to find networks of folks back home who are willing to write or e-mail their lawmakers. The sincere expression of actual voters is the most potent tool of lobbying. Money helps of course. It's said half in jest that lawmakers care about three things, "Getting reeeleted, getting reelected and getting reelected." When you can give a lawmaker money that helps that person buy ads and those muster up votes. But if you can find those votes directly, by stirring up interest among the voters themselves, that's even more potent. That takes money of coruse. And very hard work. But that's what keep everyone focus long and hard in the lobbying world. No outcome is preordained simply because of money.


Anonymous: Are there certain firms that are major players on K Street? Do they each have reputations in Washington?

Jeff Birnbaum: Yes. There are all shapes and sizes of lobbying firms. And they're not all on K Street either (though they aren't far away from there.) Some lobbying firms are small, some very large, some specialize in different issues, such as health or environment. Their prices also vary widely. I'm half thinking I should write a guide of some sort. That's awfully hard however since the lobbying firms range in size from one-person shops to ones with dozens and dozens of folks. If you have a company that you want to know more about, I'd be happy to help--without recommending anyone of course.


Paris, France:
Would you agree that there is less neeed for lobbying as industry has direct access to the White House and Congress?

Jeff Birnbaum: Lobbying is certainly needed. Direct access is only part of what a person or group needs to win the day in DC. There are hundreds of industries and they often fight against each other in the lobbying realm. It takes all of these resources and cunning to beat the other guy. Less lobbying, in my experience, has never been the answer for any group, industry or otherwise. Lobbying has only expanded in the more than two decades that I've lived and worked in Washington.


Alexandria, Va.: So when people buy an agency, are they really buying the agency's connections to those in power or is there any actual expertise there? If so, what?

Jeff Birnbaum: Both are needed: access and expertise. I assume you mean actually purchasing a consulting company. The acquirer needs the principals access to influential people AND the wisdom they have acquired about how best to persuade those influentials. One without the other won't do. This makes doubly clear why the lobbyists themselves are the chief assets of any business of that kind.


Jeff Birnbaum: A friend of the column, K Street Confidential, telephones to ask the following:

Do lobbyists play a big role in the elections:

Yes, lobbyists more than ever have been giving money to candidates for office. The presidential election draws lobbyists into the fray as well. Lobbyists are sprinkled throughout the campaigns of both Kerry and Bush. They tend to be people who have real talent and skills in political matters. They also truly enjoy electoral fights. That's why they're in the business in the first place. So, yes, lobbyists are everywhere during elections. They also don't mind getting to know elected officials early in their careers. The earlier a lobbyist gets in "good" with a politician, the better he or she will be able to persuade that lawmaker down the road.


Washington, D.C.: Jeff -- Any good resources for someone who will be doing some advocating for a non-profit on the Hill, but has no lobbying background? I know I'm not lucky enough to find "The Idiot's Guide to Lobbying" or some other 10-step how-to, but I believe strongly in the cause and I want to make a real effort to make a difference.

Jeff Birnbaum: I would start by finding a like-minded lawmaker on Capitol Hill. I would then go to that office, meet the staff, and beg for help. Another option is to contact another, larger nonprofit that might agree with you and begin to form an alliance. Hopefully, you can grow both of those efforts. Eventually, you can maybe find a mentor who can walk you through the details. Just be patient and keep trying. Lobbying isn't easy. Winning is even harder.


Washington, D.C.: What percentage of registered lobbyists are also practicing attorneys?

Jeff Birnbaum: I wish I knew. My guess is that most lawyers who lobby are not considered "practicing" lawyers in that they don't have much to do with courts--Congress mostly. Also, the notion of "registered" lobbyists is a pretty useless measure. Many many thousands of people who work full time in the influence industry never have to register as lobbyists given the narrow, legal definition of what a lobbyist is.


Virginia: What is the history of formal lobbying in American democracy? I am assuming it has been around in one form or another since the founding fathers, but was it ever so? corporate? In my mind I see them as almost hired mercenaries. Am I mistaken? Thank you.

Jeff Birnbaum: Lobbying goes back to the Magna Carta, which gave the right for redress of grievances (though I think at the time it was the right of the nobility to petition the king). As longa s there have been governments, people ahve tried to persuade them. Even the continental congress in our country was "lobbied" at musket-point by soldiers who had not been paid. Lobbying has grown tremendously in this country. In Europe, for instance, the profession is still in its infancy. And the lobbying industry in the U.S. is more diverse, ubiquitous and effective than anywhere else. (As for "corporate," I think it depends on who you mean.) But everywhere around the world, lobbying is growing and will be like the U.S. version eventually--for good or ill.


Jeff Birnbaum: Here's a question from me to you:

Do any of you know of a family that has more than one lobbyist in it? A father and son. A mother and daughter? Brothers? Cousins? Please send what you know to kstreetconfidential@washpost.com


View from the other side: First, I just want to point out that ANYONE who works with the Hill can be considered a lobbist, even those who work for non-profits. I am one such person who works at a non-profit but as "registered" with the Hill as a lobbist - and no, I do not hold a law degree. Second, in my experience (first hand and word of mouth) there is something to be said for working for a group that has a reputation for getting work done and being honest (yes - such a thing can exist) then working for one who just throws money around to gain entrance.

Jeff Birnbaum: I agree with you. There are all sorts of routes to becoming a lobbyist. Earlier I was asked what would be a good route, and I said that working in government would help as would having a law or advanced degree. But you don't have to do either to become an effective lobbyist. I take your point. Cheers.


Washington, D.C.: Do you enjoy appearing on Fox News Channel?

Jeff Birnbaum: Yes, thank you, I do. It's a great addition to my work here at the Post. Thanks for watching. I'll be on tonight on Special Report with Brit Hume.


Jeff Birnbaum: Thank you everyone. Thanks for writing in. I hope we can do this again soon. If you have any other comments, questions or suggestions, please send them to kstreetconfidential@washpost.com


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