A Tax Break for Legislators, Whether 'On the Job' or 'Working'

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

It's nice to have friends in high places. Just ask the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At the lobby group's request, the House Ways and Means Committee voted last week to add a tax break to a long list of other breaks known as "extenders" -- so named because they have to be renewed each year or else they disappear. Only this particular break -- for state legislators -- was not an extender at all, because it's not in current law.

No matter. Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) was contacted by the leaders of his state's legislature -- as well as the national conference -- and decided to add the one-year, $4 million provision to his committee's latest tax bill. It's now pending before the full House.

The measure would allow state lawmakers to write off their state-provided per diem payments, even for days when their legislatures are in "pro forma session." The term refers to days when the legislature declares itself to be in session but is not doing any real work. That happens to be the case in New York for about half of every year.

Technically, a state doesn't have to give its legislators any actual cash for them to take the write-off. A legislator can elect to take "an assumed or deemed" deduction at the accepted per diem rate.

In fact, a state legislature would not need to declare every day an actual or pro forma legislative day to allow members to take full advantage of the benefit. The federal tax code counts as legislative days any break of four days or fewer between actual or pro forma days.

According to Rangel spokesman Matthew Beck, "The IRS began to more aggressively audit New York State legislators," contending that the lawmakers should not have taken deductions for all those days. Unlike other types of employees, state legislators have long been permitted to deduct their per diem payments for days that they are on the job.

The IRS and Rangel obviously disagree about what "on the job" means. Thus the legislation.

Republicans on the committee objected strenuously to the provision. Rep. Kenny Hulshof (Mo.) moved unsuccessfully to strike it, and Rep. Jim McCrery (La.), the senior GOP member of the panel, called it "a real stinker."

An official of the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the yearly deduction could reach $55,000 for a state lawmaker whose legislature declared enough pro forma days.

Via e-mail, Beck said, "The Committee believes that Congress should review the matter and provide what clarity it believes necessary."

"Clarity," in this case, means agreeing with the powerful chairman of Ways and Means.

Obama's D.C. Connections

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is running hard against Washington and does not take campaign donations from registered lobbyists or political action committees. But that does not mean he is without plenty of K Street helpers.

One of his top surrogates and advisers is former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who works in the lobbying department of the law firm Alston & Bird. (Daschle says he works as a strategist, not as a registered lobbyist.)

But two registered lobbyists do help out: Moses Mercado plans to take a leave from Ogilvy Government Relations to assist Obama during the primaries, and Daniel B. Shapiro of Timmons & Co. advises on foreign policy.

In addition, Gregory Craig, a former lawyer in the Clinton White House and now a trial lawyer with Williams & Connolly, provides foreign policy advice to Obama along with former national security adviser Anthony Lake, now at Georgetown University, and former Clinton aide Susan E. Rice of the Brookings Institution.

James A. Johnson, the investor who formerly chaired Fannie Mae and Brookings, is also on Obama's D.C. team.

Daschle said Obama is not as anti-K Street as his rhetoric might suggest. "Barack believes that in any democracy that it's very important that there be advocacy," Daschle said. "What he's saying is there has to be more transparency and better balance."

In the coming weeks, this column will name other D.C. advisers to the major presidential candidates. Please send your suggestions to kstreet@washpost.com.

Public Affairs: What is it?

Last week I asked what that squishy term "public affairs" really means, and I got lots of definitions.

Several readers went on the attack. Jim Pasterczyk called public affairs "porcine cosmetology," by which I assume he meant putting lipstick on a pig. Jason Dick, borrowing some phrases, defined it as "an account mostly false, of events mostly obfuscated, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and lobbyists mostly former rulers."

To Ted Lorenz, public affairs is "the creation of the appearance of public benefit to produce private advantage."

A few people saw the term as a way for public relations people to puff themselves up. Veteran PR guy Wes Pedersen wrote, "Public affairs is deemed by 'practitioners' to be far more palatable to the public than public relations, but it's the same sheep in ram's attire."

My colleague Martha Hamilton said the term is used by PR people "to convey that they're more important than a mere flak."

A more serious and concise definition was offered by Stanley Collender of Qorvis Communications: Public affairs "is communications designed to get Washington or a state or local government to do or not do something."

Another PR firm executive added this nuance: "Public affairs is lobbying without ever talking directly to a member of Congress." Advertising, media contacts and grass-roots lobbying all appear to qualify in that context.

Douglas Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, noted that public relations offices in the federal government are always called "public affairs" offices. Federal law, he explained, "prohibits the use of appropriated funds to hire publicity experts" and, as a result, "no one in the government wants to use the proper term."

Whatever the "proper" definition, no one can disagree with an anonymous e-mailer who wrote that public affairs are "what private affairs become after the Washington Post gets ahold of them."

Hire of the Week

It's hard to believe, but even with a Democratic Congress, four former, high-level Republican spokesmen have banded together to form a public relations firm. Terry Holt, Trent Duffy, Jim Morrell and Chad Kolton now operate as HDMK.

Apparently spinning is done with equal vigor, and in pretty much the same way, by both parties. "We work with Democrat communicators and lobbyists on virtually every client we serve," Holt said. "We do have ideological differences, I suppose, but rarely do we disagree on smart strategy."

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