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Hurricane Lobbying

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Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005; 1:00 PM

Oil refiners, bond issuers, air carriers, manufacturers, insurancers and farmers are among the interests clamoring for Congress to include their wish lists in Katrina-related legislation. Washington Post staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum was online to discuss today's story on the ways lobbyists are angling for a slice of the hurricane pie.

A transcript follows.

Birnbaum writes K Street Confidential , a column about lobbying, every Monday.

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Laurel, Md.: New Orleans, of course, is (was) a much-visited tourist city. Are there any indications that it's doing better on the lobbying front than other places where few people except the residents have every been?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: It's fair to say that because New Orleans is a city, it will get more attention. That's sad but true. But more than that, because so much federal money is involved, lobbying will be very intense. Lobbyists go where the money is. That's their job.

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Charleston, South Carolina: I consider all lobbyists to be predatory capitalists and interested in stealing from the taxpayers' coffers.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: It's too easy to dismiss lobbyists as bad guys (and gals). They are very important to the governmental process. We must watch what they do to know what our lawmakers and laws will do to and for us. That's why I spend so much effort keeping tabs. We all should, I think.

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Ewa Beach, Hawaii : Rep. Peter King recently said that all recovery funds would be closely monitored by an inspector general, which would assure proper contracting and payments. Is this a specially appointed IG, or will it be simply another mission for the Homeland Security IG? Why should we believe that the "special" IG will do any better than the current IG has done in the recent abuses (e.g., no-bid contracts, over-pricing by Carnival)? What we need is an independent organization led by a person of integrity, such as Gen. Powell.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: We need SOMEBODY, or many somebody's, to keep close track. That's very important. Whether there's a Czar or a team, that much money needs to be watched, especially when budget deficits are weighing down on all of us. Yes?

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Bethesda, MD: I've been very critical of the Post for its complicity with the Administration on its recent Iraq lies, so it's only fair to thank you for your stellar coverage of the hurricane profiteering the past couple of days.

It's heartwarming to see that, on top of the record profits and billions in new subsidies the oil industry has enjoyed lately, that they will also be capitalizing on the misery of those on the Gulf Coast. I'm going to make a conscious effort to bike and take the bus to work from now on...

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I'm not sure I agree with you, but passion in politics is a wonderful thing. It's important that people like you watch and stay vigilant. One good way is to read the Post and it's often critical coverage of all sorts of things the government does. Thanks for writing.

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Arlington, Va.: I guess I would look to 911 for comparisons. What special interest legislation would you say was passed in the name of homeland security?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: A lot of legislation is filled with narrow favors. In fact, almost every piece of legislation. Also, so much of government's work is done by outside contractors that private interests are always benefiting. Homeland security is also income security for thousands of lobbyists and their clients.

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Burke, Va.: How has the mindshift on K Street shifted, if any, in recent years? Would the same thing have happened had the hurricanes occurred in 1995?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: The same thing may have happened years ago. But K Street has changed tremendously. It now is much more powerful and what lobbyists want they get much more often than in the old days. Lobbyists are real players. Knowing what they know and what they want and what they are doing is essential to guessing how laws that impact us all will be changed or implemented. K Street is government street these days.

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washingtonpost.com: Jeffrey, you write that a lot of lobbyists' pleas dressed in hurricane clothing are for things that Congress has rejected for years. Will the short attention span of Americans help or favor lobbyists' efforts?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Much of what lobbyists want are perfectly okay and in fact are valuable to the lobbyists' clients. I don't mean to dismiss their requests. In fact, they are very important, as I say. But lobbyists' jobs are to find reasons to get what their clients want. And the hurricanes are the best, most compelling reasons they have going at the moment.

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Arlington, Va.: What about the other side of the coin -- do you think this administration is interested in using this opportunity to relax or eliminate regulations that it has lacked the political capital to attack before?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Yes, all sorts of regulations, environmental and many others. That's what's likely to happen to allow the construction of more oil refineries. Extra drilling will be sought in lots of places, including in the ocean deep. Regulations of various sorts, such as those that help workers' wages, have been suspended in the Gulf coast area.

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Clifton, VA: My coworkers and I want to submit a proposal to get the strippers, exotic dancers and transgender entertainers back on their feet and entertaining. We will do consulting. Do you know a firm on K street that can help us? We figure this should be worth billions. These poor people need the govt's assistance too!

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I bet there are a lot of folks on K, and many other street, who would be happy to help you out. But not me, thanks.

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Northern Va.: Just how much lobbying can lawmakers accommodate? When everybody starts a big push at the same time, does it create a traffic jam in the halls of the Capitol? Do lawmakers tend to fit a few minutes in only for the lobbyists they know? Or is there always enough room on the schedule for petitioners?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Lobbying goes on all the time and most of it isn't person to person. Letters, e-mails, questions from interested parties at townhall meetings, advertising, faxes, these are all lobbying too. So no, there's still room for people other than lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Thank heavens!

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Portland, Ore.: I think the House Speaker tried to raise this, but it has since died out.

Sitting here in Portland, Oregon I'd like them to rebuild on higher ground and prevent the need for any future flood assistance.

Is there anything in all of this spending-for-all that will try to encourage any flood prevention? Such as relocation from most vulnerable areas?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: The Louisiana delegation and others have requested many billions of dollars and will probably get a lot of it. I think much of the money will go to strengthening the levees rather than raising the whole of New Orleans and that probably makes sense for the city and for the treasury too.

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washingtonpost.com: DeLay Indicted in Campaign Finance Probe

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washingtonpost.com: Jeffrey, a Texas grand jury just charged Rep. Tom DeLay and two political associates with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme. What's your initial reaction?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: This is a blow to the Republican party and to the House. Tom DeLay has been a major force for the GOP. His fundraising will be hurt, which is a terrible problem for Republican candidates. He's been a major leader and mentor to Republicans. His ideology has also been a bellwether. His disappearance from the leadership will be the start of a grand transition that could pull the party in a more moderate direction. The GOP nationally will have to do a lot of fancy footwork to prevent the Democrats from tainting all GOP candidates with the word "corruption." In short, this is a very big deal.

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Burke, VA: What effect will having Rove be the head the rebuilding process mean to lobbyist - will he be able to give the "right" company the bucks?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I don't think Karl Rove has much decision power over where legislative favors go. That belongs to the powerful members of Congress and there are lots of those. Enough to keep K Street humming all the time.

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Washington, D.C.: Steven Pearlstein wrote today that the federal government shouldn't cover the losses of sophisticated lenders who took their chances, placed their bets and made tons of money before the dice finally came up snake eyes. Are you seeing examples of that in your reporting?

washingtonpost.com: Don't Let Industry Win With Disaster Bailouts

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: A lot of the lobbying on the hurricanes involve bailout of various sorts, such as the airlines seeking pension protections. It's almost hard to find an example among insurers or any other industry that isn't looking for something that can be described that way, at least by critics.

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Enjoy your column: Do you think that Congress will see the irony in eliminating or underfunding some of the social programs that these people relied on to meet basic needs, i.e. medicare, CHiP, Head Start, school breakfast/lunch.

The biggest joke of all was when there was a push to increase the section 8 program of subsidized housing -- There are years-long waiting lists for that!!

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I think that cutting programs in general will not be looked on as favorably, espcially in the areas you mention. The deficit will balloon as a result, but Congress doesn't appear to be much in the mood for paring their wishes. Only expanding them.

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Arlington, TX: If flood insurance is paid to those who never paid a premium for the benefit of the mortgage industry, will Ted Turner, in the process of colorizing classic B&W movies, also have to change Wells Fargo's image as guardian of the strong box to the culprit opening the lock box?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I can tell that you see the point. Cheers!

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Pennsylvania: Now that DeLay has been charged, can Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post back off the Abramoff story now?

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Sue Schmidt is one of the Post's very best writers and reporters. And the Abramoff story, which I've written about as well, is very far from over. Stay tuned.

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Alexandria, Va.: Good Afternoon, Mr. Birnbaum

With all due respect, the process of "lobbying" is, for the most part, purchasing legislation. An objective observer would have no trouble defining this activity as bribery, yet you seem to think that there is no connection between the money flowing to members of Congress and the laws passed. Can you explain why you believe this?

Many thanks, Eyes wide open in Alexandria

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: I believe that there is a very strong connection between money and politics and legislation. I don't think that campaign contributions alone are responsible for legislative outcomes. They are an important element, however. I study all the elements, as should you.

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Jeffrey H. Birnbaum: Thank you for the wonderful questions. Please come back the next time I'm on. All best!

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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.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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