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K Street

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Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum will be online to discuss the intersection of business, politics and government on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 1 p.m. ET.

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A list of Birnbaum's columns can be found here.

A transcript follows.

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Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone,

Thanks for writing in. My column today discussed ways around the new ethics rules, a fancy lobbying visit to Washington by professional poker players and a lobbyist with a surprising new job. I also ran a chart that included some big spenders among cities and states when it comes to lobbying help. That's your taxpayer dollars by the way paying lobbyists' fees. Lots of grist there for debate and discussion. Please send you question and comments. Irreverent remarks are welcome. Let's get started.

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Muncie: How does a lobbyist differ from a briber?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, that gets right to the point, doesn't it? Many lobbyists do not give campaign contributions at all to members of Congress. They do all sorts of other things to persuade, like devise ads, do research, write letters and speeches and call people like me to get their points of view in the press. So those folks do not "bribe." Many lobbyists do give contributions to politicians committees and those are not considered bribes because they fall within legislated limits. Elections are privately funded so the law contains ways for people to donate to candidates without running afoul of the law. Now some of those contributions can be considered a "bribe" if some official act is promised explicitly in exchange for that donation. That kind of quid-pro-quo is very rare and very hard to prove. So bribery is not often alleged by criminal authorities. On the other hand, at heart your question is headed in the right direction. Campaign finance laws are what can be thought of (in a loose sense) as legalized bribery because money is given to lawmakers mostly by people who have in interest in what the lawmaker does in Congress.

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Baltimore: What do you think of the increased contributions from telecommunications companies that Sen. Rockefeller has received? I kind of agree that it's hard to believe that $$ would sway his vote, but it sure doesn't pass the smell test. I keep going back to wishing politicians would agree to a code of conduct to "avoid the appearance of impropriety". Won't this kind of thing end up hurting the Democrats in the 2008 elections? You know, the "it doesn't matter who's in office, they are all corrupt" argument.

washingtonpost.com: Senators Say White House Cut Deal With Panel on FISA (Post, Oct. 23, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't have any view about Sen. Rockefeller and his donations. But I do agree that it's hard to imagine that anyone as wealthy as he is would be much swayed by that kind of thing. Lawmakers do live by a code that says they should avoid the appearance of conflicts. Unfortunately, as I just wrote above, the system makes that impossible to pull off. They are always appearing to be in a bad spot because they take money from groups that care deeply about the legislation they vote for and write. Is that system a real problem? Or is it the best we can come up with? Write in early and often and let's discuss!!!

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Washington DC: Re: your recent column on the National Association of Manufacturers, what could anyone do to deserve a 40-50 percent raise? How does an organization begin to justify that? And I'm sure that the lower level staff isn't getting those kind of benefits!

washingtonpost.com: Lobby Group's 'No Dough' Strategy Stops at Executives' Doors (Post, Oct. 23, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are correct about the nonexecutive staff. It does not appear that their wage hikes are up in the same range as people like NAM's president John Enger--42 percent, as I recall. I have not actually asked NAM directly how its board justifies the big pay raises that the senior staffers got last year. In general, its spokesman was not commenting publicly. But I have asked if there was some reason that the number was so large--such as a one-time payment or a bonus or deferred compensation and the like. I got no comment on that. In any case, here's the chance for NAM to speak out. Why did Engler get so large a pay raise? Is is justified? This is also the chance for others to weigh in. Do you think that Engler should have gotten so big a boost to $1.2 million a year?

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Anonymous: The last time I had lunch at K Street's 'Legal Seafood,' there was Ralph Nader with a crowd of Gucci-shod 'K Streeters.'

What's the word on his plans for the '08 election event?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Even Ralph Nader has to eat. I don't begrudge him that, do you? Last I heard about Nader he was considering a run for the presidency again. It's getting late for him to get in, but he has surprised us before. The next big opportunity for him will be after the primaries are over. Watch then.

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Orlando, Fla.: Mr. Birnbaum,

Who do you think won the Republican presidential debate earlier this week in my city? I keep thinking that Huckabee really stands out.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think the entire top tier of the GOP lineup did well down your way the other day. Huckabee is an excellent debater. The best moments of the night were John McCain's. For example, when he said he had been "tied up" during the Woodstock music festival in the 1960s (a reference to his being a prisoner of war in Vietnam) produced a standing ovation. Rudy and Mitt also produced good performances, and Thompson showed (finally) that he had a pulse. Rudy I think was the most consistently impressive; he is charming and confident in a way the others are not always. Romney, for some reason, never comes across as having blood in his veins. I can't put my finger on the problem but that's the way I feel whenever I watch him. Do you agree?

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Richmond, Va.: Are there any committee rules regarding conflict of interest and political donations? Has a committee member ever recused themselves when a topic has come up that also involved a big political donor?

Loved the chats and thanks for taking our questions.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I never saw an example of the latter, but probably there should be a good number of those. Lawmakers are supposed to avoid conflicts but they still take tons of dough from interests that come before them. That is not always a conflict of course. It's just the system. But when the timing of donations get close to a moment when a lawmaker changes his or her mind on an issue the givers care a lot about, that's when news is made and conflicts are a legit complaint. That's the kind of thing that journalists like me look for to make the point.

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Washington, D.C.: Will the power players win their gamble?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I assume you mean the "poker" players. My column today talked about poker players coming to town to try to get an exception to a new law that prevents credit card companies from processing online wagers. The answer is: I don't know. A couple high ranking lawmakers support the effort, but breaking into the statute just passed and signed will not be easy. It also is likely to cause an effort to get rid of the whole thing. If Congress excepts poker why not other kinds of gambling? I think it's an uphill climb, in short.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you decide who is the Hire of the Week?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I prefer if the item is exclusive to the column. But sometimes even exclusive items are not interesting. So what I look for most is a story. What's new? What's surprising? What's fun? What can this new hire say about how the world of K Street has changed? If I can use the hire as a window into a broader world, that's what I would like it to be. That help?

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Seattle: Isn't the only way to stop special interests to get the money out of elections? All these ethics rules and laws are just chicken feed as far as I'm concerned. When will the politicians in Washington finally stop the money gravy train?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, your question clearly attempts to answer the earlier comments about conflicts and bribery. I think you are correct that the only way that the influence of money can be taken out of the system is for money to be taken out of the system. That isn't possible in a lobbying sense. Money has been declared by the Supreme Court as the equivalent of speech, at least up to a point. But if individuals were prevented from donating to lawmakers' election campaigns that would certainly go a very long way to reducing the complaints about corruption I read all the time in these chats.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you have against the National Association of Manufacturers? You have written negatively twice about NAM recently and you don't usually concentrate that much on any one group.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I have nothing against the NAM. I wrote about it twice recently because I had something to say. One was about how it echoed an effort by the larger and more influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce when it started a transportation coalition. And there was last week, when I noted huge wage increases for NAM's top staffers and also a comment much remarked on among lobbyists by NAM's president John Engler, which, in effect, was that he was glad not to have a PAC. That is a minority view to say the least, and a silly one for someone who wants to wield influence in Washington, regardless of your politics. I also contributed an item to Al Kamen's excellent column a few months back that talked about the huge turnover of staff at the NAM. These are all legit stories, I think. I write about NAM all the time in other contexts, too, as part of broad lobbying alliances. I would be happy to write about it again, if there's a real story to tell. Send suggestions early and often.

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Kansas City: I keep reading but don't see you covering the big farm bill all that much. It is one of the biggest pieces of legislation that Congress has to deal with and this is the year. What kind of lobbying is going on there and why don't you write more about it?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: In my youth, I was an agriculture reporter. But not anymore. I have written about the big increase in influence of the fruit and vegetable lobby. But I haven't seen another angle into the topic. If you have one--if there's one group that's winning and another that's losing--please send it along.

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Bethesda, Md.: You wrote a while back about Dick Gephardt and his lobbying for Turkey. I guess he won big against the Armenian resolution last week. Why would he take the Turk's side when so many Democrats like he is go the other way?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Gephardt told me that he was not eager to lobby in general after he left Congress. But he was persuaded after the attacks of 9-11 that helping allies battle terrorists was a very important public policy goal. Turkey is one of those allies, and he said he was proud to represent the country. I do not think he sees the effort as partisan in any way, but I did not ask him that question. In any case, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to back off on the Armenian genocide resolution that was a major defeat for her. Personally. And a victory for President Bush. That's the risk lobbyists run. They sometimes anger their old friends and help their old enemies.

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Richmond, Va.: Do lobbyists try to preach to presidential candidates in the same way they try to change minds in Congress?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes they do. Trade associations in particular send their propaganda to presidential campaigns and their policy advisors all the time. In fact, lots of policy advisers are connected to interests one way or the other. The big plums come after a candidate has won and the lobbyists are put on "transition" teams that put appointees in place in key executive branch departments. Watch for that the minute the election is over.

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Washington: Why do you keep writing about getting around the ethics rules? The story here is that the rules are really crimping the style of lobbyists and that's the way it should be. You should write that story.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: ok. Good suggestion. I'll give that one a try, too. Do you have any examples for me about ways that lobbyists are pulling in their horns?

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McLean, Va.: Do defense contractors do a lot of lobbying? I assume they do, and that's a reason why defense spending is so high.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes you're right but the reason for big military spending is the war in Iraq and a president who believes strongly in keeping a very large military presence.

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Arlington, Va.: Congress isn't really doing all that much this year. So why all the lobbying? You seem to fill up your column every week even when almost nothing passes in Congress.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: And it's not as easy as it looks. Yes, Congress is not doing much that will result in a finished law this year, but that does not mean lobbyists are not worried that something will happen. They are very busy working on all sorts of things, even if those things don't happen. In fact, probably most lobbying is directed at trying to prevent things from happening. In that way, I guess, lobbying has been an enormous success this year.

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D.C.: Why do you call the column K Street anyway? I know a lot of lobbyists in northern Va. and others that aren't on K at all. Seems like you're misleading your readers.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, most advertising agencies are not on Madison Avenue either. But it's just a term of art. K Street used to be the heart of downtown Washington and, thus, was where the lobbyists hung out. Now official Washington is sprawling and the lobbyists are everywhere as well. Please bear with me on this one.

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Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for writing in everyone. It was a lively conversation. Let's to it again in a couple weeks. Cheers!

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DC: Just wanted to say that you're doing a great job and I always appreciate your view of the lobbying world. You really have your finger on what those of us in the "trenches" are experiencing.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you. That's very kind.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over 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.


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