K Street

Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss the intersection of business, politics and government on Tuesday, Dec. 4, at 1 p.m. ET.

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

A transcript follows.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello all,

Thanks for writing in. This week I wrote about John Engler at the National Association of Manufacturers among lots of other things. Please write in and tell me what you think of NAM--and of Engler. There's been a controversy around town on that topic, but I learned that the chairman of that organization does not understand the dispute. Charles Bunch told me that he backs Engler and his people. Period. That may well put the issue to rest, but please write in an let me know. Let's get started.


Washington: Why do you have it out for the NAM?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I do not have it in for the National Association of Manufacturers. I have written about the organization a few times this year, true. But I was simply responding to developments and a lot of mail about the organization, sometimes from very upset people. I do not usually get a lot of information about one particular trade association, but NAM is an exception. The online questionnaire that I heard about late last week from NAM's chairman gave me a chance to ask the people in charge over there what was really up. The chairman of NAM, Chuck Bunch of PPG Industries called me back and made clear that from his point of view, John Engler, NAM's president, was doing a fine job. I suspect that will disappoint Engler's detractors who have been in touch with me. But that is the state of play as best I can determine it. I have nothing against NAM at all, and was glad to add another voice to the issue in my column today. Anyone want to weigh in with a point of view?


Dallas: You wrote last week about trial lawyers suing each other over the term "trial lawyers." I for one did not appreciate the way that you put down lawyers. The right for access to the courts is one way for average people to correct serious problems caused by governments and corporations. To dismiss what lawyers do is an injustice to the system as it works now. A Case of Trial Lawyers v. Trial Lawyers (Post, Nov. 30, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Gosh, I feel a little under attack today. I don't have anything against trial lawyers. In fact, one of my best friends is a trial lawyer (and that is not a joke). I took a slightly irreverent tone in my feature about the multiple lawsuits over the use of the term "trial lawyers" because the situation is, well, a little absurd. The Association of Justice dropped the name Association of Trial Lawyers of America last year in large part because the term "trial lawyers" was so unpopular. But now it and another group are suing an upstart organization for appropriating the term and ATLA, the old organization's abbreviation. That's a little funny, don't you think? Lawyers suing lawyers is also always a crowd pleaser. So I meant no disrespect, but I did not want to lose the slight ridiculousness of the situation either.


Chevy Chase, Md.:

Who is the most politically influential Democratic lobbyist on K Street? His or her Republican counterpart? Who is the Tarzan who swings both ways?

Any K street honchos who will wind up in the White House in 2009?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Lobbyists do not tend to swing both ways -- politically. They are generally either Republican or Democratic, not both. And there are far too many lobbyists in town for me to start naming the most politically influential. I can say that it is almost certain that lobbyists (or, rather, former lobbyists) will be in the next administration, almost no matter who wins. Even though some of the Democratic candidates say they won't hire "registered" lobbyists, that does not mean that people who did a lot of lobbying won't be appointed to important jobs. The distinction of who needs to register unfairly narrows the number of people who work very hard at trying to influence the federal government. Given a broader, and fairer, definition, lots of lobbyists will be in the White House and elsewhere in the government come 2009--just as they are now.


Sacramento: The governor in my home state of California has been trying to make the world a greener and therefore a much better place. Not so in your Washington that is for sure. I do not see much progress on either the green front or the energy front. Why is that? Isn't it time for people in Washington to wake up? What big interests are stopping that progress?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: A very large energy bill is making its way through Congress, and a lot of big interests, including the oil companies, are not happy with it. It would mandate all sorts of conservation measure and more renewable fuels production. As for its future, however, that is more problematic. President Bush, through his aides, has said he has all sorts of problems with the bill and would probably veto it if it ever gets out of Congress. That will probably slow its progress to a crawl this year. So next year the big fight will come. That's when you will see if Washington is anything like California. My guess is that you will be disappointed.


Washington, D.C.: Please explain why the name Assoc. of Trial Lawyers is less popular than its current name of A. Assoc. for Justice. A Case of Trial Lawyers v. Trial Lawyers (Post, Nov. 30, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I can say that corporations, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been beating up on trial lawyers for years and have made the term into, essentially, an epithet. People don't like lawyers much generally; they don't like journalists either for that matter. But trial lawyers have gotten special negative attention because corporations think that the lawyers who sue them are a very expensive nuisance and should be eliminated. The lawyers, for their part, see things completely the opposite way. They think they stand up for the little guy and give that average Joe voice that they would not otherwise get, in the courts.


Washington, D.C.: What chance to you think Giuliani has in the presidential campaign? White House Signals That It Might Veto Energy Bill (Post, Dec. 4, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think he has a good chance. He is still strong in the national polls, even if he is weak in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Republican race is very tight by all accounts. No one is a shoo in. The top tier, which now includes Mike Huckabee, has a pretty open field. Rudy, Mitt, McCain, and now Huckabee all have a chance. It's a real race, as far as I can tell.


Florida: After all these years, why are recipients of pr press releases still tossing same into File 13? And, just what is PR? Practitioners themselves still cannot figure out if they are publicists, marketing people, ad executives, media relations people, public affairs, etc. Why is that so?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Those are two distinct questions. Sometimes press releases are tossed out because they do not make a story for the publication or the broadcast they were sent to. I often am surprised by the press releases I get. They are not stories for me or for anyone else, as far as I can tell. Too many PR people forget wants makes a news story or a feature and simply try to push what their clients want, regardless of the audience. That is not useful to either side. As for your second question, I think PR people are a little of all of those things. why should they be just one?


Detroit: Is Congress going to hurt auto companies by increasing fuel efficiency standards? White House Signals That It Might Veto Energy Bill (Post, Dec. 4, 2007)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't think so, and for two reasons. The first is that the auto companies agreed to the 35 mpg standard in the pending legislation. They would not have done so if they were going to get whacked. Second, it's not clear that even that agreed-to standard will become law. President Bush, though his aides, has voiced all sort of concerns with the energy bill and he might end up vetoing it if it ever reaches his desk. That probably will not be until next year. Or so I hear.


Philadelphia: I love my XM radio. Will the FCC be taking that away from me? Or will it allow the merger between XM and Sirius so that paid radio can still continue the way it has been? It's been a great thing for me, that I can tell you.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't think anyone wants to take you XM from you. The question before the FCC and the Justice Department is whether XM and Sirius, the two satellite radio networks, will be allowed to merge. Originally, the two networks were allowed to come into existence, and charge for their services, as long as there were always at least two of them. That way no monopoly would exist, which theoretically would allow for much higher prices that could hurt consumers. But XM and Sirius now argue that there are so many ways to get music and talk that they could not possibly constitute a monopoly, even if they were one company. It's possible that XM or Sirius could go away if they are not allowed to merge, given their huge financial losses. The future is up to federal regulators. Stay tuned.


Princeton, N.J.: A trial between a corp and a person is like a platoon of line backers armed with machine guns facing a 110 lb women armed with a small pen knife, and she's sick! Of course she'd need a paladin to fight for her. Of course he has to win big so he can buy his equipment for the next trial. Translation: Trial lawyers need big fees so they can hire experts for the next trial. They lose once and they are dead. Read "A Civil Action" or if you don't read, watch the movie. (I am a mathematician, not a lawyer.)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, a pro-trial-lawyer voice is heard from. Anyone agree? Disagree?


Hampshire, U.K.: The European Union is turning itself into an unaccountable "Big Government Folly" complete with a rival GPS satellite system and unitary military command outside of NATO. Only the people of Ireland will be given a referendum on whether this change will happen.If they vote yes this will be bad for US interests as France and Germany would run the show.

When Martin McGuiness and Dr Ian Paisley of the Northern Ireland Government come to Washington this week What will be your advice to them on how Irish people should vote next spring?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't think I'm the best person to advise anyone how to vote, let alone people from Ireland.


Virginia: I think trial lawyers are a menace. We should ban them.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, that's certainly a different point of view. I don't think you'll have much chance banning trial lawyers, or lawyers generally. They are an important part of system--whether you like them or not. Clearly, you don't like them, I get that.


District of Columbia: I wish NAM would win more things. That's my complaint.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I have heard that from lobbyists in town. But I bet that can be said of almost every interest group or lobby. Nothing seems to be passing this year, or at least not very much. It seems hard to imagine blaming Gov. Engler for failing to get things done, or through Congress, in a year in which very little makes it all the way to the president's desk.


Tysons Corner, Va.: Jeffrey - seems folks at the Post are missing a golden opportunity to expose what is one of the largest boondoggles to which I've ever been witness. The Dulles Rail Project, with all its players - politicians to business to government - would make a perfect story for you all. Why does this continue to be glossed-over. Doesn't anyone want to report on the story of how Fairfax County political leaders who are tight with State leaders continue to threaten the landowners/developers, who continue to fill political coffers, meanwhile the local government gets manipulated, federal government gets blamed, and the citizenry suffers. There's SO much intrigue to this story, yet no reporter has done any serious digging. What gives? Will you do it?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I would be happy to look into it, or to make sure other reporters know what to look for. Please e-mail me some detail at Thanks for the idea.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, that was a busy session. Thanks for writing in. Let's do it again in a couple week. Cheers!


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