K Street Confidential

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

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

This week's column examined the growing numbers of women and minority lobbyists .

A transcript follows.

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

____________________

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello All.

Thanks for writing in.

Please don't feel that you need to ask only about women in lobbying, or minorities in lobbying.

There's a lot happening in official Washington and we can be wide-ranging.

As long as we don't go too far, of course.

In any case, let's begin

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Interesting column today.

I was struck by the observation that:

Today lobbying is less about back scratching than it is about case making. A lot of lobbying involves researching and presenting facts and, at those things, men and women are on equal footing.

This seems contrary to the widespread view that lobbying is about handing out campaign cash and other favors. Is the situation perhaps not so corrupt as some high-profile might make us think?

washingtonpost.com: Today's Column: Women, Minorities Make Up New Generation of Lobbyists

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't mean to suggest that giving out money and back-scratching are out entirely.

They are very much still in.

But on top of those stand-bys, a lot of other types of lobbying are growing.

There's so much money in getting Congress to act that clever folks are forever coming up with new means and methods.

_______________________

Joy, Ill.: Shouldn't the minority party be the overseers of ethics violations for the other party? Shouldn't the majority party be overseers of ethics violations for the minority parties? Wouldn't this ensure a more stringent adherence to ethics?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That would insure a food fight.

Maybe, actually, a riot.

The ethics committees are evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats to avoid partisanship of the kind that your suggestion would inflame.

That even division often leads to gridlock except in the most extreme cases, but that, I think, is the reason for the breakdown in that way.

Lawmakers don't want to be ethically challenged (even though many of them are, if you know what I mean).

An independent agency has been recommended as a way fairer to the system than your suggestion but, not surprisingly, lawmakers have rejected the idea in both the House and the Senate.

_______________________

Sanibel, Fla.: Your recent story on AIPAC emphasized their shift from mostly lobbying the Congress as they did 20 years ago for foreign and military aid, to the Executive Branch's key foreign and defense policy makers. Following this same pattern, the China Lobby uses the US Chamber, the Business Roundtable, the Aerospace Industries Association, Silicon Valley, countless CEOs and at least eight former Secretaries of State, national security and presidential trade advisors as their leading advocates. Would you agree that today the new China Lobby may be the most powerful lobby in Washington, with most of the expense being footed by US industry, and very little needing to be reported under the 1995 Lobby and Disclosure Act?

washingtonpost.com: The Power Player Who Faces Charges for Talking , April 21, 2006

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you as always Sanibel.

I would like to write about the China lobby more and when I do I hope to be able to answer your question intelligently.

But clearly, it is a very powerful force and is different because it does rely on U.S.-based organizations and corporations to wield its power.

As for AIPAC, I did not mean to say it had gone over and is now emphasizing executive branch lobbying over traditional congressional lobbying. Lobbying Congress directly and, increasingly, from the grassroots remains AIPAC's chief method of operating in DC. Executive branch lobbying was and is important as a supplement.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: I have a question about women in lobbying. Where do they eat lunch in the city? I'm looking to hook up with an older rich-ish decent looking Washington type.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I could tell you where to go, but if you were to find any female lobbyists there, my guess is they might not like you very much. I would rephrase the question (nor not ask it at all) if I were you. Just some friendly advice . . .

_______________________

Washington, D.C. : What role should Republican political PR firms play in the diversity of the Bush Administration? It has been my knowledge, with at least two major Republican PR firms, Quinn and Gillespie and BKSH Associates, that they actively work against minority candidates trying to gain access to jobs in the Bush Administration. There seems to be a reverse effort, mainly from the likes of Charlie Black (BKSH) and Ed Gillespie (Quinn and Gillespie), both former RNC Chairmen.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: First, both firms you mention are bipartisan.

Second, I doubt very much that the firms would work against minority hiring. Quite the opposite would be true from everything I know about them.

Third, outside firms do not have the clout you suggest on personnel matters inside an administration.

I think you may be misinformed.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: There seemed to be an article in the WP last week about how K Street is a state of mind and most lobbying firms are elsewhere in the city. Does it really matter where they are? Speaking of which, do you miss Fortune?

Jeffrey Birnbaum:

The heart of downtown DC has shifted over the years, so K Street is simply the name people gave to the lobbyists' part of the city when K Street was the heart of downtown.

Now fancy office buildings are all over the place between Georgetown and Capitol Hill and also across the river.

I think it's fair to say that lobbying has grown so large and so diversified that K Street is too short to hold it all.

_______________________

Hyattsville, Md.: Good afternoon. I've been following the latest ethics reform bills, and one thing has struck me.Although the proposal bans registered lobbyists from picking up law makers tabs, it allows corporations to do so.

This seems like a loophole big enough to drive an 18 wheeler through. What would stop a corporation from just giving a lobbyist a credit card, instead of having the lobbyist bill after the fact?

To me it seems that it's just another case of congress pretending to make major reforms, when actually doing nothing.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You've caught one of many loopholes.

Labor union or corporate execs could still pick up the tabs even if the Senate passed version of the ethics bills is enacted.

The ethics legislation is more notable, in fact, for what it does not include than for what it does include.

Lawmakers are not hearing from the constituents that a sweeping overhaul is needed and, as a result, lawmakers are not planning to provide them with one.

_______________________

Palm Beach, Fla.: Who is covering his activities (contributions, jobs after leading office and such) since Prince Bandar left the scene?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: No one that I am aware of. Should someone be doing so?

_______________________

Doylestown, Pa.: Would you please name and describe a few different types of current lobbying?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: There are many. A few include:

Grassroots lobbying

Coalition building

Direct lobbying

Advertising

Public Relations

Research

Speech-writing

Electronic persuasion via the Internet

Strategic advising

Lawyering

_______________________

Kent, Ohio: How could one prepare for a career as a lobbyist?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: The best way, I told, is to work in government first.

There also are terrific college level courses of study here in the Washington area. I believe that all of the major universities in the area teach lobbying and government affairs, some of them with the held of the Bryce Harlow Foundation, which is a very good group.

I personally teach regularly at American University. (Full disclosure required.)

_______________________

Kansas City: Noticed that Mark Warner is in Israel on an AIPAC "arranged" trip. How do you view the significance of that both for AIPAC and for Warner?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I would have been surprised if Warner had not gone on an AIPAC trip. Virtually every national politician has. The AIPAC trip to Israel is often the first trip abroad that members of the House take. And then they return often. Is that wrong? I leave that to you.

_______________________

Anonymous: Hi Jeff - I just saw the movie "Thank You for Smoking" over the weekend. Have you seen it yet (or read the book)? If so, what's your take on the main character. Do you think a lot of lobbyists set aside their own moral values to do their jobs. He seems to repeat over and over again that his job is all about knowing how to argue correctly and that's how he succeeds - but it seems this might be belittling some of the intelligence that's in the lobbying community. Or is this a pretty accurate portrayal? Thoughts?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I read the book, which is terrific. And some lobbyists are amoral, of course. But the story is satire, not real. Almost all the lobbyists I know believe in what they are pushing and don't see a moral problem with their points of view. And it's hard to see it differently. Most lobbyists press for very narrow, business-related issues on which there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. The biggest danger for them is boredom, not moral terpitude.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: What's the difference between DeLay's trips to Scotland and Warner's (and everyone else's) to Israel?

Don't both types offer the same potential for abuse?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think there's a strong argument for your view. That's why Congress is debating limits on privately funded trips, and why AIPAC is lobbying so vigorously against any limits.

What do you think, friends?

Are private trips wrong?

_______________________

Gaithersburg, Md.: Do young lawyers, etc. join government now with the ultimate goal of becoming lobbyists in about 5 years?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, and five years may be a long stint.

It used to be that people came to Washington to work in government. Period.

Now people, many people, come to Washington to work in government so that they can get a high-paying job as a lobbyists afterward.

That's one of the big changes that have come to town since I've been here.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Following up on the AIPAC question, do you believe there can be a civilized discussion about the influence of the Israeli lobby without name-calling and accusation ensuing? If so, how can we do this?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes there can be.

But I have not yet seen it take place.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: What is being done to mitigate the businesses or coalitions that are still insisting on Republican lobbying firms being hired... e.g. fire the Dems for being "too liberal".

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Nothing is being done to change that. It will happen as long as Republicans are in charge of all the levers of power in Washington.

If the November elections bring Democratic control to the House, the Senate or both, then the hiring patters will change.

But not until then.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: If a female owned lobbying firm believes they are being discriminated against by a particular association, (either because they are female or because perceived political differences) what remedies are there?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's a tough one.

Associations can hire whom they wish. I would ask a lawyer that specializes in employment law. There are plenty around town.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Lobbyists hold an important and privileged position in Washington now. They have resources that lawmakers must rely upon to get bills written and passed. The majority of Americans, when asked in opinion polls, don't believe that lobbyists should exist. If lobbyists were to cease existing or, more realistically, if they were to stop providing these necessary services to lawmakers what would the effect by on Washington and governance? To follow up that question, who is in control in Washington - is the lobbyists, who hold the resource and information to wield power, or is it the lawmaker who holds the lever of power but lacks the necessary information?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Lobbyists are important, I agree, and more important than they used to be. But government officials and members of Congress have the real power, and it will always be that way.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: How do you see the Plame case proceeding, and how likely is it Rove will be indicted?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: From everything I hear about Karl Rove, he may have finally slipped the net. I doubt that he will be indicted. If, however, we see him making a sixth visit to the grand jury, my prediction is, as they say in spy land, inoperative.

_______________________

New Brunswick, N.J.: Dear Jeff, I've heard voices that Republicans have no intention of doing anything serious about lobbying reform. In your opinion the proposed bill is a good one and what are the chances for passing it in the House and later in the Senate?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Lawmakers complain about the bill themselves, so I'm not telling tales by saying that the measure is considered tepid. Certainly Speaker Hastert wanted a tougher bill back in January when he got the ball rolling.

That said, I think a bill will pass so that lawmakers can say they passed "reform" when other indictments come down this year connected to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

_______________________

Virginia: I bumped into an AARP lobbyist at Capitol Hill. He was young. I did not believe him at all. If AARP lobbyists represented their memberships (older people), then I would have believed him.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Oh, I don't know.

Lobbyists are professionals. You don't need lobbyists for agricultural products to be farmers. You just need someone who knows a lot about Congress and farm policy.

Your concern places a little too much of a burden on lobbyists, I think.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md.: Good Day Mr. Birnbaum: Is it to the benefit of society for women to leave traditional careers like education, nursing, and publishing, to join the K street ranks or is it to the detriment of society to lose women with valuable expertise from those fields to become lobbyists.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Lobbying is valuable work. And I don't know if I buy the careers that you have women leaving from, anyway. Women are a growing presence in the workforce and lobbying is not exception, and it shouldn't be.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Blonde female lobbyists were hurt by the dalliances Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Dodd have with them. is the images still hard to overcome?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know the specific instances you are referring to, nor do I know if they even occurred, but the caricature of the "dumb blonde" is long, long in the past, especially when it comes to lobbying.

_______________________

Arlington, Va.: It looks like the House is getting closer to passing the lobbying bill, but a very weak one at that. If it succeeds, will it really aid aid in ethics reform or at this point is it mostly procedural to appease those upset by the Abramoff and Cunningham scandals?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think that the extra disclosure that the ethics bill includes will be a great boon to the public.

But beyond that, I go with the fig leaf interpretation.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Is Mrs. Daschle still a lobbyist? Why are lobbyists who are spouses of federal officials grilled by congressmen when their own spouses are not given a glance over?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I believe that both Linda Daschle and her husband, former Sen. Tom Daschle qualify as lobbyists. I assume that Sen. Daschle would dispute this characterization, but my definition of "lobbyist" does not comport with the legal version. People whose job is to help interests get legislation passed or get legislation stopped are lobbyists. Period.

(I bet a nasty e-mail is already on its way.)

_______________________

Virginia: What about lobbyists in other state's capitals? Albany, Richmond, Annapolis, etc?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Lobbyists are in every state capital, as well as in Washington. They each have their own rules. In other words, that's a topic too large to take up here.

_______________________

How could one prepare for a career as a lobbyist?: The most crucial thing is to identify your local red light district. Then you need a good pimp, unless you feel capable of operating independently.

After a few years, if you find you need to take a step downwward and discover that this gig is too ethically challenging, you should be ready for lobbying.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I know that's the way a lot of Americans feel. But if voters were to stop their curiosity with that sort of bigotry, then ignorance about our legislative process would be the result.

Willful ignorance is the opposite of what we are all about here at the Post.

I hope you are with us on that one.

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: Your column today also briefly touches on more minorities joining the lobbying forces - do you think the immigration debate will have a large impact on the industry and encourage minorities to begin lobbying careers (for example, by using immigration as an "entry" topic into the field)?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: All side so of the immigration fight have engaged lobbyists, that's for sure.

And that will probably bring more minorities into the ranks of lobbyists.

But the reason we'll see more lobbyists in the future from minority groups will be because more minorities are being brought into government itself.

And that, I am glad to say, is happening both on and off of Capitol Hill.

_______________________

Germantown, MD: I had a strange thought about lobbying. Many of the abuse seem to happen because the money comes from deep pocket sources which may not be representative of the members constiuency. What if lobbying funds were treated as matching funds. Lobbyists could provide money to a member as a match (on the order of 10 or 20x) to money coming from individuals. E.g. I'd designate my campaign contribution to be matched by Planned Parenthood or Right to Life and that lobbying organization could provide 10x funds or trips or whatever.

The lobbying organizations are somewhat important these days in writing the legislation - it may not make sense to completely eliminate them.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's certainly worth a thought.

I had never heard that one before.

Thanks! We can learn something new all the time.

_______________________

Jeffrey Birnbaum: OK then.

Thank you for writing in.

I look forward to our next chat in a couple weeks.

Cheers!

_______________________

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. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company