K Street Confidential

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006; 1:00 PM

K Street Confidential columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss the intersection between government and business on Monday, April 17 at 1 p.m. ET .

This week's column tries to answer the question: "Could Tom DeLay become a lobbyist now that he's leaving the government?" Read more in today's colum: Lobbyists Say DeLay Could Be One of Them .

A transcript follows .

K Street Confidential appears every other Monday in the Washington Post business section.

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Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone.

Thanks for writing in.

I am thrilled at the questions today. There are lots of them, first of all, and many are well-considered and piercing.

That's what I love the most.

Let's have a lively exchange, friends, and if all goes well we can all learn something new.

So, off to the races about Tom DeLay, lobbying, legislating and how Washington really works these day.

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Sanibel, Florida: Fascinating column today. Look at it this way. This is further proof (as if any were needed) that K Street is the "show," the Major Leagues in Washington, where the big rewards kick in only after service in the "minors" on the Hill or in the Executive Branch -- including the White House. K Street is not the Fourth Branch of government, it's the First. This has evolved in just the past 15-20 years. Bryce Harlow, who I worked for, would be flabbergasted, but not entirely surprised.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for your question.

Bryce Harlow is a legendary lobbyist and governmental aide. For those who don't know, he opened the Procter & Gamble lobbying shop in DC in the early 1960s and, when he wasn't working for a corporation, was advising a long list of presidents. He also was a top aide on Capitol Hill. The leading lobbyists' group is named for him.

He was quite a fellow, by all accounts.

As to your point about the change in DC, I think you hit it on the nose. Lobbying is the goal of service in government these days, which is a reversal of what it used to be. In fact, very few people came to Washington with the thought of staying. There wasn't much to stay for.

But that's all turned around and that is, essentially, the story I write about day in and day out.

Thanks for your insight.

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Metropolis, Ill.: What lobbying firms are former Sen. John Breaux and former HHS Sec. Tommy Thompsom associated with?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Breaux is at Patton Boggs (Tom Boggs' firm) and Thompson is affiliated with Akin Gump (where Joel Jankowsky rules the roost on lobbying.

Thompson's spokespeople have said vigorously that the former cabinet officer and governor does not lobby.

Heaven forfend!

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Leesburg, Va.: Is there any office that actually enforces lobbying rules such as the Lobbying Disclosure Act? I have been trying for 9 to 10 months to find which office in the government will admit to simply being the right office to RECEIVE complaints... never mind getting into the substance. The Secretary of the Senate Office of Public Records says they only receive and file papers... they don't enforce. Asked who does, they don't know. The U.S. Attorney for D.C. is clueless. None of the offices of the Justice Department admit to being the right office, or even knowing anything about the law to be enforced. After many attempts, they referred me to the local office of the FBI, who acted baffled as to why anyone was referring such matters to them. (Violations of the lobbying disclosure act usually involve civil fines, so the FBI couldn't understand how it was their responsibility.)

Bottom line: How can lobbyists be policed if there is NO office in Washington that admits to being responsible for policing lobbyists? To answer your question: Sure, heck, why not? If there is no traffic cop at all, Tom DeLay can fit in just like anyone else.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, your research is complete. There is no such place.

More or less.

The local U.S. attorney is supposed to deal with violators but almost never does.

Clerks in the House and Senate review the filings of lobbyists and refer any oddities to the U.S. attorney, who, as I mention, basically does nothing with them.

The House and Senate ethics committees are supposed to oversee all this, but has done almost as little as the U.S. attorney's office.

The House ethics committee, in fact, has been moribund for months and months.

What's to be done? The Senate has rejected the idea of creating an independent Office of Integrity to enforce lobbying rules. The House isn't even scheduled to deal with the proposal.

So . . . don't expect a better answer to your question anytime soon.

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Rockville, Md.: DeLay in De Lobby?

Sure. Why not? No doubt as to what one is getting.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: No De Oubt.

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Portland, Ore.: Frankly reading your column depresses me.

It seems to me the idea of democracy is that states send citizens to Washington, D.C. to represent them, then those citizens should eventually return home, back to their states. If they don't, that implies to me they're loyalties are definitely elsewhere and were probably so when representing "their" state.

I get the impression more and more that becoming a representative is more of a career move than a public service.

Are there any statistics kept of how many congressmen actually do return to their home state after serving? How many go into lobbying? How many move to the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't really like people to get depressed when they read my stuff, but I catch your meaning.

Public Citizen's Congress Watch keeps up with the number of lawmakers who become lobbyists, on its Web site.

Others who watch this reveloving door turn include politicalmoneyline.com and the Center for Public Integrity.

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Washington, D.C.: Jeff, in your article today you quote three current lobbyists who all agree that Tom DeLay could make a killing on K Street. All of these quoted lobbyists are also partisan political operatives. Are their statements of support indicative of broad lobbyist support for a DeLay to K Street move or is it just partisans backing their friend? Could you give us the view of a non-Republican lobbyist?

washingtonpost.com: Today's Column: washingtonpost.com:Today's Column:Lobbyists Say DeLay Could Be One of Them

Jeffrey Birnbaum: This is an excellent question.

Among the best answers I got were two lobbyists who did not want to be quoted by name. Both were Democrats. But because I prefer naming my sources (for the sake of good journalism), I didn't include their responses in the column.

You will be interested to learn that they split on the subject of whether DeLay would be an effective lobbyist. Both headed major law firm lobbying practices. One said that firms would be crazy to hire a person under such a legal cloud (though he understood that some firms might) and the other said, like the the others I quoted, that DeLay would surely be a hot commodity. DeLay certainly knows where the bodies are buried, this lobbyist said, and unearthing them is worth a lot to paying clients.

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Germantown, Md.: Based on the way the dominos are falling right now, do you think that the most successful lobbying firms in the next few years are going to be the single party firms or the bipartisan firms?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I go with bipartisan firms and always have.

Even firms that have lobbyists only from a single party routinely "partner" with a firm of the opposite party. This creates, in effect, a bipartisan lobbying effort, which is a distinction without a difference from a bipartisan firm.

Then again, maybe hiring two firms instead of one means more fees for the firms involved, which, I guess, is a difference worth noting--but not a very worthwhile one.

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Washington, D. C.: Which Senators are the most outspoken critics of the current lobbying system and are any of them calling for changes like public financing of candidates, an end to access for benefits, and required publication of what lobbyists ask Senators for?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Everyone seems to want more disclosure and they are likely to get it. A few Democratic lawmakers want public financing of campaigns, led by Reps. Obey and Frank. Two of the leaders in the lobbying "reform" movement are disgusted with the direction of the legislation--they call it too weak--and are Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.)

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Max Boot: Wouldn't Delay have to wait a few years and avoid matters involving committees he served on?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for the question, Max.

DeLay could be a "strategic consultant" immediately, which is what a lot of former high ranking lawmakers become. He could not directly lobby his former colleagues for one year after he leaves office under the rules.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think DeLay will hit the lecture circuit and if so, how successful do you think he will be?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think he will but there's some dispute about that.

One lecture firm president I spoke to said DeLay's marketablility will be limited because of his ethical problems. Another said he would be well-received by the Christian community of which he has been so much a part for so long.

We will see how it turns out.

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Arlington, Va.: Will DeLay be allowed to lobby from his jail cell?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: He could lobby but couldn't be paid. He certainly couldn't register as a lobbyist. I also rush to note that there's no indication that he's going to jail.

I count as lobbying many, many activities that wouldn't require someone to register as a lobbyist, including giving strategic advice, researching an issue and stirring voters from the grassroots.

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Rochester, Minn.: Would you consider the business owners, office managers, doctors, and employed people who are donating their own money to promote Condi Rice for president as lobbyists or political activists? There seems to be a debate going on right now in Congress about limiting how much a person can donate to a political 527. So if a business owner has $100,000 in their own bank account, why can't they show their support of this fine woman? I think full disclosure is the best sunlight to shine on any political candidate or group promoting them. Did you know these Condi people have spent over tens of thousands of dollars on radio and TV ads in the past year, including right in DC? I would like to know your viewpoint of citizens who act in support of Condi instead of trying to cut down people?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are not alone in your view and I won't take sides here.

But I will note that the chances of curbing 527 groups, which are political committees independent of the parties, is small this year. The House passed a proposal to do so mostly to anger Democrats, who are in the minority in that chamber. A 527 provision in the final lobbying bill could doom the entire legislation in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to gum up the works.

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Alexandria, Va.: Just a follow-up from a previous chat, linking two things you mentioned in the discussion: The rise in number and influence of lobbyists over the past decade, and Ways and Means Chairman Thomas' comments about how the business community essentially ruined the prospects for comprehensive tax reform -- the FSC-ETI bill in 2004 could have led to major tax simplification, but instead resulted in narrowly tailored subsidies for certain businesses.

I think this is very striking: Twenty years ago Congress successfully passed a major tax overhaul and simplification -- reducing marginal rates by eliminating special interest deductions. But the FSC-ETI bill became a mini-monster due to all the special tax breaks attached, and opposition from key lobbying groups (i.e. realtors and the mortgage community) killed the Administration's tax reform proposals.

Do you think this 1986 vs. 2006 comparison demonstrates the growing power of the lobbying community?

washingtonpost.com: washingtonpost.com:K Street Discussion from March 6, 2006

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I do think so.

Which isn't to say that the Tax Reform Act of 1986 didn't have special interest provisions. It did.

I think a better comparison is to look at tax reform then and now. It passed back in 1986, increasing taxes on corporations by billions. The tax reform effort of last year died in large measure because of opposition from corporate interests.

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Washington, D.C.: It's not surprising that DeLay could become a lobbyist -- when I heard of his resignation and that he would declare his home in Alexandria his primary residence, it was clear that he would position himself to profit in some way from his time in House leadership.

Any concern a lobbying business would have over DeLay's apparent radioactivity would be vanquished by the avalanche of money and clients he'd bring in.

To paraphrase a saying by Jimmy Breslin, it seems the lobbying profession will soon pick up another sucker who has to pay bills.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I agree with much of what you say but I also caution that DeLay has not said he would lobby, or do lobby-like things.

A colleague of mine here at the Post said, "I liked your column. Washington has no shame."

To which I said, that's right, but I needed to write a little more than that otherwise there'd be a lot of white space.

In any case, my friend's comment encapsulated both the long and the short of the issue.

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Bowie, Md.: Shouldn't it matter that Sen. DeLay may be convicted of a crime? Where are all of the moralists? Why is it ok for politicians on either side of the aisle to be hired by 'lobbyists' after their stint in Congress? Is Congressial to lobbying firms what universities are to the NBA/NFL?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I guess, in a sense, you're right. Congress has become the farm team for K Street.

It's okay for lawmakers to become lobbyists because we're a free country--and thank heaven for that!

One provision moving through Congress, however, would double to two years the time that lammakers would be prevented from lobbying their former colleagues directly. That would probably slow the revolving door at least a little.

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Metropolis, Ill.: Are Sen Breaux and Sec Thompson's firms lobbying for health care reform and are health care insurance companies connected?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know who these individuals clients are off hand. I would be very surprised, however, if lot of companies interested in health care "reform" aren't clients of the law firms that these former government officials work with.

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Cave Creek, Ariz.: Is there a chance that DeLay could begin his lobbying "career" prior to going to trial (or trials), and if so, wouldn't that cause great concern on the part of his employer as there is the potential that he would be schmoozing one day and then be the lead story on the news the next day as he enters and leaves court?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, several of the lobbyists I spoke to said that until DeLay's legal issues are resolved he might not get a lot of lobbying gigs. But lobbyists don't all have to register what they do publicly. Mr. DeLay could consult with interests that have an interest in legislation, get paid well for the service and no one would know. That's possible and even before Mr. DeLay's legal matters are concluded.

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Memphis, Tenn.: During our recent Southern Republican gathering, a group of people supporting Condi Rice for 2008 came to promote her for president. My question is, do they get lumped into the lobbyist group or a special interest group? I heard they are spending their own money for travel costs, and the donations go toward radio and TV ads. So are they more like a political action committee? With so many groups running around the nation trying to make a buck, I found it interesting that this group of Republicans care enough about the 2008 race to get involved now. What do you think?

Thank you.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: It is interesting and potentially important in a political sense. The legal ins and outs of what they are doing doesn't seem that critical overall. I just hope they have gotten themselves a good lawyer who can make sure that everything they are doing is okay, statute-wise. That would be the smart thing.

I would, by the way, be surprised if Rice ran for president or any other elective office. But if she were asked to be a vice presidential candidate, I would also not be surprised if she gave that a lot of thought and ultimately said, YES!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: When you say that former Members of Congress are prohibited for one year from "lobbying their former colleagues directly," is that shorthand for speaking to any legislators as a lobbyist, or specifically only those people with whom the Member served? So they could lobby new Members, or people who serve in the other chamber?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I believe that the rule is that former members of Congress can't directly lobby current members of Congress for a year. But I am double checking to make sure that the ban involves both chamber of Congress.

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Vancouver, Canada: Discussing lobbying as if it were a debatable official government structure seems absurd. The devil is in the details. For instance, government by corporate lobby in D.C. has meant a thousand tiny cuts to environmental protections in just the last few years - well documented by the Post and Sierra magazine. I turn, in the real world, that has and will mean more toxins in our children's bloodstreams. Ther is no question about that. McCain and Obama have it right, the supposed safeguards are pathetically weak. Government of for and by the corporations is not democracy.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Your view is common but not everyone agrees. Anyone out there want to dispute the gentle-person from Canada?

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Alexandria, Va.: Here in DC lobbyists are understood and are friends of ours in many cases. In America, however, the tag has been linked to criminals and the job is not understood, thus making it more 'shady.' Local papers are using this fear in political battles, for example:

http://news.enquirer.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060416/NEWS01/604160338/1056

What can be done?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: No much. Lobbyists, like journalists, and in fact like most professionals, have many detractors. In addition, lobbyists have the added burden of working for narrow interests in a place that is supposed to champion the public interest--Washington. That institutional barrier is probably too high for even the most well-meaning lobbyists to scale.

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Desert Hot Springs, Calif.: Is it possible that Jeff Gannon was a lobbyist "gift" to the White House?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: If so, that's a gift the White House would probably have liked to return.

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Arlington, Va.: When is the lobbying bill coming up in the House and will it make any difference to the way lobbying works?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for the question.

I expect that the House will take up its version of the lobbying bill as early as next week and that it will pass overwhelmingly--almost no matter what it says.

But neither it nor the Senate-passed bill would change lobbying fundamentally or even in a sweeping way. They will both basically be lobby disclosure measures. We will all learn more about what lobbyists and lawmakers do with each other.

But I wouldn't expect any permanent bans or major enforcement increases or anything else that would change Washington's behavior. The only thing that could change that would be a spate of indictments of lawmakers that force Congress to rein in campaign fundraising laws. And I don't expect either end of that equation to happen soon.

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Jeffrey Birnbaum: OK everyone.

My time is up. Thanks so much for all the questions. If you want, please send me story tips to Kstreetconfidential@washpost.com

And I'll see you all online in a couple weeks, after my next column runs.

Cheers and thanks!

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