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Post Magazine: Mickey Goes to Washington

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Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 1:00 PM

Can a team of lobbyists for the travel industry persuade Congress to cough up $200 million for an overseas advertising campaign that would promote U.S. tourist destinations? The Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum asks this question in his story in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

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A transcript follows.

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Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. Thank you for writing in. Today I will be happy to field questions about lobbying in general and my column today, as well as the story I wrote on Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine. The Sunday piece followed the course of a lobbying campaign from the inside over a year and a half. The travel industry was the subject. I hope you enjoyed the piece and learned a few things about lobbying in the process. That was my intention. But I see we have some praise and some criticism of the story in the questions today. I will be happy to air both. Let's get started.

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Arlington, Va.: Much of your article emphasized the tourism industry's desire for 200 million in funding for the this promotion program. Why was it not until the end of your story that you allowed that the pending legislation would, in fact, include no funding from tax payers? Isn't that a little disingenuous?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: The version of bill you refer to did not occur in the course of events any earlier, and the story is a narrative. So I put the bill in the story where it belonged. It was not disingenuous in any way. If I had not said what had happened to the bill at that point in the story as it was unfolding, then you would have a case. But in this case, you don't.

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Portland, Maine: NOT MY TAX DOLLARS. Kids health FIRST Mr. President and Congress.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I take it that you mean that the travel industry should not get the federal help it wants. You are not alone in your opinion. I have gotten some e-mails, to kstreet@washpost.com, that echo your sentiment. Also, many of the comments at the end of the magazine story online suggest a similar point of view. Anyone else out there with a strong opinion? Please let me know by writing into this chat.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Jeffrey, thanks for writing such an insightful piece on the lobbying industry. This racket (all intends of the word) often emulates the Sopranos show in it's backroom sleazy dealings and advancing of very narrow self-interests. The corrupt earmark industry has grown in direct proportion to the lobbyists... History will prove this era of elitist welfare to have been an embarrassment to our core principles.

The conservatives are hammering on McCain for not being conservative. As one of the few Members of Congress that vehemently opposes earmarks, he should be lauded for getting back to core principles.

The lobbying industry fuels wasteful spending when the country is in hock. For our children's sake, allow them to have an adult economy rich with promise and opportunity, just as we enjoyed and just say no to wasteful handouts...now!

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I see you agree with the previous correspondent. Are there any people out there to defend lobbying and its effort to get stuff from Uncle Sam? Seems to me there are lots of good reasons to ask the government for assistance. Whadya' think?

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Chevy Chase, Md.: When will lobbying ever slow down in terms of its growth? It can't just keep growing all the time.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Never, probably. The bigger government gets the more lobbying of it that goes on. Washington also keeps getting more and more complicated, which adds to the need for lobbyists. They are specialists and that's the kind of people who are needed to navigate here. Also, lobbyists are relatively inexpensive, at least compared to the pain they can block or the benefits they can bring their clients. That is the economics of lobbying, and the benefits so far outweigh those costs that lobbying is very likely to thrive for a long time, no matter who wins the White House.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I noted that former governor Tom Ridge, in your article, is paid $20,000 a month to lobby. Is that a standard D.C. rate or is that high or low? I ask because there are lobbyists in Harrisburg that never were public officials who get that kind of money, and I would have thought that D.C. would be much more expensive. Or are lobbyist rates about the same in D.C. as in big states with full time legislatures?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know what lobbyists charge in other places, to be honest. I probably should find out. But the about $20,000 a month for Ridge is on the low end of commonplace in DC these days, for consultants of his sort. Some people get a lot more, depending on what services they give, and some get less, for example if they are pushing appropriated earmarks. In general, I would guess that $20,000 a month is on the high end at state capitals. True?

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Washington, D.C.: When I was at the Department of Commerce before, we had the U.S. Travel Agency. Whatever happened to it?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I hope I don't have my agencies mixed up, but I believe that the agency was done away with as part of the anti-government push of Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s. It was one of the few federal agencies that was actually zero-ed out despite the harsh rhetoric of the moment.

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Washington, D.C.: Doesn't the fact that Messrs. Freeman and Gluck invited you to chronicle their efforts from the inside of their operation negate the (unfair) inuendo in your story that they were up to no good? Is it possible that they really believe that a Federal role in encouraging travel to the U.S. is a good thing for the country? Usually people who are up to no good don't invite a crusading reporter to watch.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I do not think what they were up to was "no good." I am grateful to all of the people who allowed me to chronicle their efforts at the Discover America Partnership. I did so at their invitation. I had not known about the effort before they asked me to keep track of the effort as it moved along. I wrote about what they did as best I could, and I tried not to take sides. Rather to tell the story as the facts unfolded. I did not pretend that what they were doing was not controversial. That would be hiding pertinent facts from the readers. Some of the things they did, in addition, were ironic or just plain funny, as seen from a person on the outside. And that was who I was. The person on the outside. It was not my job to promote their effort, but to record it in a journalistic fashion. And that is what I tried to do.

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Anonymous: I think there are some legitimate uses of lobbying- for nonprofit causes only though. I think it's acceptable to "lobby" in an effort to raise awareness and give technical guidance on complex issues that Congress may not have specilized knowledge of, i.e., technical topics. But I don't think it should be acceptable to wheel and deal and use lobbying for the benefit of one particular industry or company.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's a thought, for sure. But it probably is not one that would stand up to Constitutional challenge. Everyone, including for-profit ventures, have the right to petition for redress of grievances under the First Amendment.

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Severna Park, Md.: Why all the obvious vitriolic towards Disney?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I have no "vitriol" against Disney. Or anyone else in the story, for that matter.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Enjoyed the article. From all the direct quotes it appears that the travel industry lobbyists were willing participants in your story. Why would they go along? Are you sure they weren't really pitching you to write a story that benefits their p.r. strategy?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I assume they wanted good PR for their effort. And I know they believe that their cause is a just and worthy cause. They thought that showing what they did for that cause would help them. They are very proud to do what they do, and, by all accounts, they are very good at doing it. I was not privy to their decision to allow me the access they gave me. I am grateful for it, however.

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Washington, D.C.: How did this story come about?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I was invited a couple years ago to follow the Discover America Partnership try to get as much as $200 million in aid from the federal government to pay for a promote-America campaign abroad. Disney, the Travel Industry Association and several of its top members wanted me to keep track of the lobbying effort as it moved along. I agreed to do so, and kept in touch with several of the principals on a fairly regular basis. The result is the magazine piece. I have much much more to tell, however, any maybe some day I will add some further details. One point, in fact, was added in my On K Street column today, about the previously undisclosed resignation of Disney Jay Rasulo from a Commerce Department advisory board over the Bush administration's opposition to what the travel lobbyists wanted.

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Champaign, Ill: Whether lobbying turns out to be an open practise with disclosed records or an underhanded scheme where money changes hands in private, isnt lobbying essentially a means for big muscle corporates to influence policy? I might be making this sounds a little too black and white but subtelities and the hints of gray apart, lobbying seems to me to be a forced means of asserting policy which finds no place in a democracy.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Lobbyists cannot force anything. They have to persuade. Some lobbies, because of their superior resources, have a much better chance at persuading than to other groups. But no lobby can demand a change in government policy and get it. It is not that simple.

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Freising, Germany: It's interesting to note that the Freeman's lobbying efforts lead to streamlined visa and customs procedures popping up in bills on Capitol Hill. Although this point was perhaps a loss leader for Freeman's main objective, it perhaps indicates that the concept of lobbying can achieve positive results for all.

Nevertheless, I think that the concept of lobbying still remains in murky moral territory. I once worked for a firm that hired a "consultant" to spread good stories about our firm within the board of directors of a prized potential customer. It was generally understood that if the customer realized that this consultant was on our company payroll, then this would have a negative backlash that could negate any positive propaganda that the consultant could possibly propagate.

Doesn't lobbying, whether or not its within government or business, weaken meritocracy and reinforce the cynical outlook that, "It not what you know, it's who you know"?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Lobbying often does have that impact on voters, but not always on lawamkers, in my experience. Sometimes a lobby can overreach, and that can backfire. But in-the-course-of-business advocacy generally helps the acquirer of lobbying talent.

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Defend Lobbying: Why don't people realize that it's not the big bad lobbyists who are causing politics to be so corrupt? It's the money. It's the way campaigns are funded. If people truly want to end lobbyist influence to the extent that it exists today, make all campaigns publicly funded with no private funds. That would make lobbying more of an education advocacy (which exists today largely in nonprofit government affairs offices) rather than a buyoff.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: There's a thought. Anyone out there have others?

By the way, I doubt that lobbying will ever be perceived as less corrupting. That's just the way the system is built, in my view.

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Washington: How common is the kind of broad lobbying campaign you wrote about in the Washington Post Magazine? I thought lobbying was more one-on-one.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: What I wrote about is very prevalent these days. One-on-one lobbying is just part of one of those overall efforts, which include lots of different professions and skills.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why would the travel industry need the government's help anyway? Will their efforts win or lose?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That is the question that critics of the travel plan ask, such as Sen. DeMint. So far, the legislative proposal is stalled and, in an election year, my guess it will likely stay that way.

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Northville, Mich.: Based on the hosing the Disney folks have been used to giving the American public attending their over priced and over sold facilities, they can dig into the corporate coffers and cough up the $200M and keep themselves off "welfare". Besides why do poor kids in Cleveland, old folks in Paduca, single working Moms in Fargo have to subsidize (through their taxes) something like this? As liberals like to whine, it takes away from health care from intercity kids, medicines from old folks etc. etc. If it can save just one child, just one child, whine, whine, snivel, snivel, .....

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I take your point.

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Bethesda, Md.: The National Association of Homebuilders really put their foot into to as far as I can see. How can they ever start giving money to candidates again and not be accused of trying to bribe them?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: What you are referring to, no doubt, was the story last week that the National Association of Home Builders stopped giving campaign contributions after it lost two big efforts to get benefits they wanted into the so-called economic stimulus bill. The home builders did not specify which things they were angry about, but their action makes clearer than usual that campaign cash is given in the hope of legislative outcomes, something that is usually unspoken in D.C. This will become even clearer when the home builder eventually start giving out money again. They will do so, I guess, only after Congress comes through with legislation it likes. Money for favors, will be the charge, no doubt, and it will be hard to duck.

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Fairfax, Va.: I wonder if they realize that if they had taken the same money used for hiring lobbyist, a GREAT DEAL of advertising overseas could have been paid for and probably been more effective. Guess it is more fun to see how much you can steal.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: No one accuses the travel industry of stealing. And the $3 million or so their lobbying cost at its height was only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions the group wanted for advertising abroad.

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Maryland: In the final analysis, what do you think people like Freeman and company are effective at?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think Geoff Freeman and the others who work with him are first-rate lobbyists and lobbying managers. They are the perfect illustration of what lobbying has become these days. They are advocates and marketers of policy ideas. They do not always win, of course, but that is part of the story as well.

Thanks everyone for writing in. Let's do it again in a couple weeks, for my On K Street column!


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