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Why BlackBerry When You Can Take the Bus?

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lobbying has gotten fairly high-tech lately, with Web sites, e-mails and viral advertising campaigns.

But its simpler, terrestrial methods never disappear -- like bus tours.

Earlier this summer, the labor-funded Americans United for Change chose to beat up President Bush over several of his policies by launching the Bush Legacy Project bus tour. Its main weapon: a 28-ton, 45-foot "Bush Legacy Bus" that's making 150 stops coast-to-coast, often in the districts of lawmakers who have voted frequently with the president.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America also has a bus tour going. For more than three years, the drug lobby has promoted its program to provide drugs to people who cannot afford them -- the Partnership for Prescription Assistance -- by rolling buses, and an accompanying media blitz, into every congressional district.

The latest low-tech tour of this kind started yesterday in New York and is sponsored, ironically, by one of Washington's highest-tech lobbies, the Consumer Electronics Association. The association's 28-state bus tour, which will push for free trade, is scheduled to stop in Philadelphia and Baltimore before arriving on Capitol Hill for a rally next week. Both national presidential conventions late this summer will also get visits.

The gimmick is modeled in part after the most famous bus trip of all, Sen. John McCain's Straight Talk Express. It is also reminiscent of the triumphant New York-to-St. Louis bus tour of Bill Clinton and Al Gore after the Democratic convention in 1992.

Buses tend to suggest that their sponsors are close to the people -- a favorite pose in politics. Certainly, the Consumer Electronics Association could use a nudge in that direction. It's probably fair to say that not many of its 2,200 members -- including such giants are Microsoft, Google and Apple -- are normally linked to buses.

We'll see how much mileage the association gets out of this one.

Really Special Interests

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) won election to the House in 2006 by promising that he would not be bought off by all those nasty "special interests" in Washington.

On July 30, he plans to prove his purity by holding a fundraiser in the heart of the land of temptation -- at Charlie Palmer Steak at 101 Constitution Ave. NW, in the clear line of sight of the Capitol dome -- and refusing to take money from corporate political action committees.

"Corporate PAC contributions are not accepted," his e-mailed invitation reads proudly.

What the invitation does not say -- but what the Yarmuth campaign acknowledges -- is that donations from labor PACs are welcome, as is money from individuals, including corporate executives.

Does that mean -- gasp! -- that Yarmuth actually is cozying up to "special interests"? After all, aren't labor unions interest groups, too? And aren't corporate PACs really nothing more than pooled contributions from corporate executives?

Technically, yes. But Yarmuth's campaign says he is making an important distinction. Corporate PACs exist to improve the profitability of a company or industry, it says -- in other words, to promote a special interest. "But an individual's interest is not limited to his or her profession," said Yarmuth campaign spokesman Christopher Hartman. "So we've drawn the line between an individual and an individual's place of work."

Labor unions, he added, "often represent" working families, which Yarmuth says he supports.

Ah. That clears it up. Thanks.

Sighs of Relief

As we reported a couple weeks ago, lobbyists have been hyperventilating over the prospect of filling out the newest disclosure form for Congress, LD-203.

Well, they can calm down. Some of the most onerous requirements have been toned down.

Congress's "new guidance dramatically reduces the scope of the required disclosures, particularly as they relate to trade association and charitable activities," said Mike Zolandz of the law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

"It's a pretty dramatic change," agreed Robert K. Kelner of Covington & Burling.

Fred Wertheimer, of the watchdog group Democracy 21, said the changes will not reduce the effectiveness of the lobbying law that passed last year.

Under the new guidance, lobbyists do not have to disclose every time they buy a table at an event at which a lawmaker or congressional staffer is honored. Nor do associations have to reveal every time they hold a breakfast at which a lawmaker drops by to speak.

But disclosure still would be required when lobbyists or associations bankroll entire events at which a congressional member or aide receives an award.

The New Washington

Monument Policy Group is giving new meaning to the term "Washington lobbyist."

The D.C.-based lobbying firm is opening an office in the other Washington -- Washington state -- and plans to conduct federal lobbying from there.

Quite a trick, you say? Well, Monument insists that companies like having their federal lobbyists close at hand. In fact, lobbyists spend a lot of time on the road, explaining the capital's odd ways.

"We've found that clients -- particularly those with no D.C. office -- like having someone on the ground in Seattle," said C. Stewart Verdery, Jr ., the company's founder. Monument's clients in the Pacific Northwest include Digimarc, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser and Zillow.com.

The Seattle outpost will be staffed by Timothy Punke, who has already been out there part-time with his family. Punke, a former chief international trade counsel for the Senate Finance Committee and its current chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), will split his time between the coasts.

Sounds like a lovely trend. Maybe the Post needs a K Street columnist on the Amalfi Coast.

Hire of the Week

Alan L. Hoffman, former chief of staff to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), has a cool new gig. Starting next month, he'll be senior vice president for external relations for the University of California system, a job that puts him in charge of communications and government relations for its 10 campuses.

But unlike other positions of its kind in the private sector, the university discloses the terms of employment. With apologies to Hoffman, 42, here are the highlights.

Hoffman will receive an annual salary of $370,000. "Given that he wishes to maintain an existing family home in the Los Angeles area, his appointment allows for up to one day per week of telecommuting," the press release says.

He also gets "an annual automobile allowance of $8,916" and "reimbursement of reasonable costs associated with temporary accommodations in the Oakland area, not to exceed $25,000 over a six-month period," the release adds.

Not bad for government work.

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