Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 1:00 PM
K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss the intersection of business, politics and government on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
A list of Birnbaum's columns can be found here.
A transcript follows.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. Thanks for writing in. It looks like we have a healthy load of questions and comments today. So let's get started.
New York: Any word where "Lying for Dollars" Trent Lott will end up?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's a little harsh. No, let me correct that. That's a Lott harsh. It does appear likely that Sen. Lott of Mississippi, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, will leave before year end and therefore be able to go back to the Hill to lobby his former colleagues in a year. If he waited any longer the new ethics laws would kick in and he would have to wait for two years before he could go back to lobby. In any case, he is likely to spend at least part of his time trying to influence Congress in his new life. He will also probably give paid speeches. The biggest rumor in town is that Lott will go into the lobbying biz with his old friend and former colleague John Breaux of Louisiana. They might also bring their sons into the business as well; both sons are lobbyists. No one doubts that such a bipartisan firm would attract a lot of corporate clients and Lott would not have any money worries again.
Flagler Beach, Fla.: It's GREAT the president wants to do something about the mortgage scams that have been going on taking the AMERICAN DREAM of homeownership away.
My question is what is he going to do about the people who lost the homes to foreclosure after disasters have hit them and they had no other avenues to take but to lose them to the mortgage/investors causing the homeowner to lose years of equity.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think the president and the treasury secretary will probably stick to helping folks who are having trouble keeping up with their newly higher mortgage payments and stop with that. Natural disasters produce their own types of federal assistance, and, back to mortgages, not everyone will qualify for the assistance I mentioned above. In fact, it will be private interests that will give the help; President Bush only helped to bring the parties together. He is being very careful these days not to spend overmuch taxpayer money. There's only so much to go around and natural disaster bailouts need to be strictly limited or the coffers would run dry.
Washington: I read your column today and could not believe how much money the lobbyists you write about are making. I figure those people at BGR are making at least a million dollars each or more. That's too much for influence peddling. Is there any way that kind of robbery can be stopped?
washingtonpost.com: At the Tower of Barbour, Adjusting That Rightward Tilt (Dec. 15, 2007)
Jeffrey Birnbaum: To be fair, I do not know how much the folks at Barbour Griffith & Rogers make a year. It has to be a lot, though, since their revenue in 2007 was about $24 million and the shop has only 17 professionals. There is not a lot of overhead in a consulting business like that to reduce the bottom line. In any case, the company does more than just lobby; it also advises companies and foreign governments. But to answer your question, there's no way to stop anyone from being paid as much as someone will pay him. Whether the payment is for lobbying or anything else, the sky is the limit. It's what the market will bear and the market for navigating the federal government is a very lucrative market indeed. Tell me, friends, is it too lucrative?
Sacramento, Calif.: Congress is finally getting around to finishing its year. But almost nothing is getting done there. That must mean that lobbyists have had a bad year, too. Or does it? What is the relationship between congressional inaction and lobbying fees?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: The relationship is probably the opposite of what you would expect. If Congress puts off an issue for another year, which describes just about every issue you can think of this year, that means lobbyists gets to keep their retainers for 12 months longer. In many ways, the last thing a lobbyist wants is a victory, because that ends the issue and, therefore, the gravy train. Now, if nothing at all was really going to happen and clients knew that, then the payments to lobbyists would fall. But a lot of lobbying is done defensively. That means a do-nothing year is good for lobbyists because that means that something might happen next year, for a change.
McLean, Va.: I see that you have been writing more about public relations firms, and occasionally law firms. I thought your column was about lobbying. Do you write about those other types of businesses now?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I write about them all. They all operate at the intersection of business and government and that is the juncture I concentrate on. I hope, in fact, to write a bit more about law firms. They are very important conduits for corporate interests and I do not think I have been writing about them enough. Thanks for asking.
Orlando, Fla.: Is Barbour Griffith and Rogers the only all Republican lobbyist in Washington or are there others? And what difference does it make anyway? I don't get it.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I assume you mean to ask if BGR is the only all-Republican lobbying firm in Washington. There are, of course, many thousands of Republican lobbyists here. In fact, BGR is one of several all-GOP firms. Fierce Isakowitz & Blalock and Navigators are all-Republican, for example. There are others that are smaller. Fierce Isakowitz & Blalock intends to remain all-GOP and I haven't heard otherwise from Navigators. In practice, however, most lobbying campaigns are bipartisan, these all-GOP shops work hand-in-glove with Democratic lobbyists. They just don't work for the same company. And yes, in anticipation of your next question, there are all-Democratic lobbying firms as well.
Farragut Square: It's too lucrative if your only talent is being related to a member...
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Point taken.
New York: Actually, there are rules at play here, including important ones concerning taxation and concerning conversion of campaign funds for private gain. The public has a right to know if pre-tax dollars, either deductible on individual tax returns or "legitimate" corporate expenses, are being channelled to lobbying, an activity that is expressly partisan and often involves blood relatives of legislators receiving the benefits.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I'm not sure what laws you are referring to exactly. Please write in with more specifics. But Lott can keep his campaign dollars and distribute them to other politicians even if he becomes a lobbyist.
New York: Are you following the spat involving Chris Lehane/Mark Fabiani and the Writer's Strike? (not much of a seam between "PR" and "Lobbying," really)
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Actually, I have not seen that story. What's it about?
Princeton, N.J.: My idealistic daughter graduated from college in 2005. Went to DC and immediately got a job with a successful PR firm. The pay wasn't bad and they treated her very well, but she wasn't saving the world. She left them 3 weeks ago for a job at the DCCC. She just spent a freezing week of 15 hour days in uttermost NW Ohio helping lose a special election. She loves the new job, but as a Dad I want to know what is the future in such a position?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: The future can be terrific. And the present, even more exciting. If your daughter loves politics, what she is doing will be the most exciting period in her young life. Living on adrenaline and spaghetti from a can sounds terrible to a Dad, but being committed to a cause can be the most invigorating activity in a young life. I recommend it highly. Political operatives at one time had no chance for real financial riches, but that was before companies like DCI and Dewey Square began to hire them to be part of lobbying/grassroots efforts, usually funded amply by corporations, in the "off season." Politicos now work on campaigns in even numbered years and for lobbying efforts the rest of the time and can make a living. Don't worry, Dad. Send her a warm coat and let her follow her dream.
College Park, Md.: So, does that mean Trent Lott's son can now give dad a Christmas present (after Jan 1)?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Exactly.
New York City: Jeff, Lott denied he was resigning to go into lobbying before the new law took effect. Hence the "Lying ..." tag.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Oh, I see what you mean. Then again, he is prohibited from registering as a lobbyist after he leaves, no matter when that is. He is free to make the claim. But we are free to doubt him. A lot of people who lobby (given a common sense definition) do not have to register because of the ridiculously pourous definition of lobbying.
New York: Since you work for a newspaper, do you believe Americans have any idea how much money blood relatives of elected officials make as lobbyists, fees paid by those who have business before government? Don't you think this should be disclosed as a matter of law?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't see why it shouldn't be. I have written many times about the relatives of lawmakers in lobbying. Hastert's son, Daschle's wife, Conrad's wife, Dorgan's wife, the list goes on and on. Do people read and remember? I doubt it. That gives me a chance to write it again.
Wilmington, Del.: How do you read the race for president? Obama-Huckabee, or that just a joke the mainstream media is playing on us?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: It's no joke. Both candidates are surging in the polls. Given how little time is left before voting begins in Iowa, that kind of movement should not be ignored. The compression of the primary season in general could mean that anyone who gets up a head of steam could be hard to stop. This has been the most incredible presidential race. The victory could go to almost anyone in the top tier.
New York: Lehane/Fabiani are Clinton-insider Democratic consultants who just took a high-dollar contract for the producers and against the union.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Gotcha. They had better hire bodyguards in Tinseltown.
New York: Winners and Losers. That was what you asked for in an earlier column. And today again you hit the car manufacturers. I would list the car companies as losers in the CAFE standards fight. They might say otherwise, but they lost big and you should say so.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think I probably will. Thanks for the suggestion. And yes, I plan to run a column soon about the year's winners and losers on K Street. Please e-mail me your suggestions. Send them here today during this chat or to email@example.com
Old Town, Va.: I read with interest the story you wrote over the weekend about the Founding Fathers and their papers. I just don't understand, though, why it has taken decades, and will take decades more, for those papers to be published. Can't something be done to speed that up? It seems like a national tragedy to me that those books aren't finished yet.
washingtonpost.com: In the Course of Human Events, Still Unpublished (Dec. 15, 2007)
Jeffrey Birnbaum: There are a lot of distinguished scholars inside and outside of the government who agree with you. And they are pressing for change. The reason for the delay is that the readers of the papers--the professors who annotate them and detail all the references in them--take a great deal of time to make sure everything they say is correct and in context. That is not easy to do and not many people are able to do it. But does it need to take as long as it has? There's a big dispute about that and Congress is likely to weigh in soon.
Chicago: I am worried about paying extra taxes on the AMT. Has Congress fixed that problem yet or will I get stuck with a big bill?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, depending on how much you earn, what kinds of other taxes you pay and what kinds of deductions you take, you still might get stuck paying the alternative minimum tax. But if you are one of about 23 million people who were never intended to be hit with this millionaires' tax, then, yes, you will likely to spared any pain. Congress is expected to fix the AMT this week so that middle income folks would not have to pay it.
Washington, D.C.: Haley Barbour is the governor of Mississippi. How can he have his own lobbing shop in Washington too?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: He was one of the founders of Barbour Griffith Rogers, and for a long time was an active member of the firm, but he is no longer associated with the firm in any way.
New York City: Thoughts on Robert Novak's book?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: It is an impressive book written by a great reporter.
Princeton, NJ: Losers - Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al.
Winners - Hedge Fund Managers, Medical Industrial Complex
Losers - Poor Children
Winners - Big Farmers
Losers - Little Farmers
Winners - KBR
Losers (maybe) - Blackwater
Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's certainly a good start on the Winners-Losers list. Any other nominees?
Long Beach, Calif.: Thank you Mr. Birnbaum - this is a serious question lots of people are asking...just not inside the beltway as far as I can tell:
Which third party mercenary lobbyist is bribing Kevin Martin of the FCC?
Media consolidation has been useful to the White House in limiting reporting, increasing secrecy, and is desperately desired by the failing music industry giants, among others peddling advertising with information content.
Its about control.
Who are the lobbyists for big media? Advertising?
WHO is paying Kevin Martin at the FCC to eliminate competition in media?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Kevin Martin is not being bribed. Sometimes people have honest views that correspond with big lobbies' views. That's the case here, as far as anyone knows.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for writing in everyone. Looks like the holidays are about to come crashing in. That means my next chat won't be until Jan. 8. But I look forward to talking to you then. Happy Holidays!
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