Tuesday, April 15, 2008; 1:00 PM
K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss lobbying and politics on Tuesday, April 15, at 1 p.m. ET.
A list of Birnbaum's columns can be found here.
A transcript follows.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. Thanks for writing in. Today I wrote about a congressman who wants to name a post office for a lobbyist. Generally these days, the honor of having a post office named for you goes to deceased soldiers in Iraq. What do you think of Rep. Lamar Smith's approach as detailed in my column today? Sound off.
I also noted that 2007 was another record year from lobbying. What do you think about that? Please let me know.
Well, let's get started.
Chicago: How about charging real money to names those post offices. $5000 seems like way too little. How about a few million? We can use the cash.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I've gotten more than a few e-mails expressing that same sentiment. In my column today I noted by Rep. Lamar Smith was sent a $5,000 donation from USAA, the company that employs the lobbyist he wants to name a post office for. Smith and USAA say there's no connection between the contribution and Smith's bill to name the post office after the lobbyist. Nonetheless, plenty of wags have written in to say that the U.S. should charge a whole bunch for the honor--if the naming rights are being sold. Certainly D.C.'s Verizon Center costs the big telecom company a lot more than $5,000. I know that's just a joke, but a few people are angry enough to be serious about it. What do you think?
Annapolis: What difference does it make all these "stimulus" bills? Can a recession be avoided?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Most experts believe we are already in a recession. That means that economic production is contracting rather than growing. I do think that the checks that will soon be in the mail from Uncle Sam will help reduce the severity of the recession. Other aids to housing now moving through Congress will also temper things a bit. But that does not mean the economy is humming along, nor will these government actions make that happen. It's all just a little help on the margin and a kick start to what will eventually be a return to normal growth.
Washington, D.C.: The homebuilders lobby stopped giving out money to Congress when it didn't get what it wanted in legislation. Have they started giving money out again now that the Senate did what they wanted?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I have not heard that the home builders have reversed their decision of a couple months ago to stop giving contributions from their very large political action committee. But the Senate last week did decide to approve one of the home builders' top priorities: a provision that would allow home builders and others to get rebates from the taxes they paid in years past by applying the losses they are posting now. The lobby announced that it would stop handing out campaign checks when the Senate refused to approve that provision and others that the lobby wanted earlier this year. My guess is the home builders will resume handing out funds if the now-Senate-passed rebate provision actually becomes law. But that might not happen soon. A House version of the same bill does not include the benefit for the home builders.
Washington: Al Wynn is still in Congress. That should not happen. What can be done?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to the decision by Rep. Wynn of Maryland to leave Congress early. He is schedule to stay in the House until early next year, but he announced recently that would be leave in June to take a job with a major lobbying law firm. He was defeated in his Democratic primary contest earlier this year. Many critics have said that Wynn should not stay in Congress after he's agreed to take a job with a lobbying law firm. They see all sorts of potential conflicts of interest. Wynn did step down from the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee on the same day that a group of reformers wrote him a letter protesting his continued activities in Congress. That resignation certainly takes at least some of the steam out of Wynn's unusual decision to stick around in Congress but surely some people will not be satisfied until he steps out the door and joins the K Street corridor fully and in earnest.
McLean, Va.: The economy is declining. Does that hurt lobbying much or is it, like Washington, countercyclical?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, there isn't much evidence that the economic slowdown overall has cut much into spending on lobbyists. One of the items in my column today indicated that one big spender last year, Amgen, has been laying off some lobbyists lately. A few of the housing related lobbies are also cutting back because of hard times in their industries, and a resulting decline in their memberships. I hear, for example, that the National Association of Mortgage Brokers has had a roughly 10 percent decline in membership. In addition, lobbying tends to slow down the closer to year end things get. But I do not hear many lobbyists complaining. In fact, most are quite pleased and I do expect that 2008 will be another record year for them. Don't you?
Washington, D.C.: Could you tell me how many lobbyists we currently have compared to last year at this time? Is the trend upward?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't have the exact figures, but the trend is upwards, yes. A good way to check the number is to look at either cqmoneyline or opensecrets Web sites. They keep a good tally, especially the former.
Washington, D.C.: Who started the tradition of naming post offices after heroes?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Don't know. If anyone out there does, please write in. But it does seem like a sensible direction to go, if you're going to name post offices at all.
Philadelphia: Why does the far lobby always win? I read that the president will not get his way in reducing farm subsidies in the new yet-to-pass farm bill.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I'm guessing that you're talking about the farm lobby. And you're right, not much trimming of subsidies is in store if Congress gets its way. And that's a big deal. Farm bills come up every five years and that's a long time to stick with expensive programs if they aren't really needed. Bush said he wanted to cut back but he appears on the verge of being overruled.
New York: I can't imagine two people who would be bigger trouble than financial companies than Obama and Clinton. Why is it they those companies are throwing money at their presidential campaigns?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: The popular view of lobbying says that businesses are Republican. That's a vast oversimplification. Big businesses tend to be very pragmatic. They give to power so they can get what they want out of government. Wall Street is betting strongly (but not entirely by any means) that the White House could easily go Democratic in November. They also are showing they concur with the consensus that Congress will remain in Democratic hands. That's why so much money from financial companies are going to Clinton and Obama. Oh, and there are lots of partisan Democrats on Wall Street as well. After all, Wall Street is in New York.
District of Columbia: You wrote that the mortgage bankers are having more trouble than they expected to pay their own mortgage. Is that really true and how can that be?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: It is true and the story, which ran last Sunday, details why it's happening. The market has changed a lot for commercial real estate in the last year and the Mortgage Bankers Association got caught in that downdraft just like everybody else. It has no tenants yet for its $100 million building and the financing for that structure is more costly than they expected. Join the club. This is what in my business is called irony. (That's probably what it's called in your business, too.)
Old Town, Va.: What's your bet on Pennsylvania. Will Hillary Clinton beat Obama by enough to end the contest finally?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: The first question is will Clinton win the Pa. primary a week from today. If she does, that's a big help to her. If she wins with a small margin, that could be trouble for her. She would have to win in both Indiana and North Carolina to still have a shot. If she wins by a big margin (10 point or better) that could change the entire expectation game for the nomination contest. She might be seen as a possible victor for a change. But if Obama wins in Pa. (or comes very very close), then watch for superdelegates to start endorsing him in such large numbers that Clinton's chance of winning the nomination disappears. At the moment, the polls are tight and, at least until recently, were tightening. It will be an exciting night to watch (or listen on radio where I will be broadcasting for Fox) next Tuesday.
Nashville, Tenn.: What are key factors for lobbyists when they choose whom to lobby? Do you think there is evidence that they choose individuals that are well connected and likely to affect other individuals' decisions?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Many lobbyists work for a single client (such as at a trade association) and they do not get to select the issues or the people they protect. Others are consultants and get who they can as clients. Lobbyists would prefer to have clients with a good chance of winning and that often means people with real clout outside of what they bring to the table themselves.
Baltimore: You mentioned the patent bill a while back. Will that ever pass or what is happening there?
washingtonpost.com: Immunity Plan for Banks Loses Backer (April 12, 2008)
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I am told that the patent overhaul legislation is stalled in the Senate. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has misgivings about some of it and the result is that everything has come to a halt. In addition, I hear that labor unions are threatening to make the vote on the patent bill a "key vote" for them, meaning that the vote will count when they put together their congressional ratings at year end. Anyone who votes for the patent bill gets a down mark from labor and anyone who votes against it would get a favorable mark. That cannot help the prospects for this very complicated measure in a Democratically controlled Congress.
Washington, D.C.: How bad do you think the economy will get?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: It depends how much higher oil prices, and therefore, gasoline prices go. Housing will be in the doldrums for a while, but those oil prices are making a lot of other things get more expensive, including food. Those kinds of necessities really bite into people's budgets and that's a problem that I think will restrain consumer spending--two thirds of the GDP--through the summer at least.
Lyme, Conn.: I have a question from the Rezko trial I would like to learn. While I do not believe Senator Obama should be held responsible for the actions of a friend of his, I still wonder. When constituents went to Senator Obama's office to complain about the poor living conditions in Rezko-owned buildings, did Obama bring these matters to Rezko's attention or to the attention of the people on the committees whose appointments Obama has sponsored?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know that people complained to him about those buildings, so I do not know if he did or did not refer those complaints to Rezko. Whatever the answer, I do think that his ties to the real estate investor will cause him trouble in the general election--if he wins the nomination. John McCain will be sure of it.
Potomac, Md.: Looking at all the $$$$ that roll into K-Street, observing former dignitaries like Tom Daschle, Trent Lott Co. joining "their family already well established down there", reading that a "powerful" member of Congress (from LA) gives up his honorable Hill job that pays around $ 179.K/pa and becomes PREZ of an Assoc. he was supposed to oversee for a cool $ 1 Mill/year..... (hedge funds)one begins to wonder what's going on here.
Then the White House Press Office releases text of a speech by GWB on visit to children of School # 75 in Kiev/UKRAINE April 01, 08 in which he ask them to get involved in their new "democratic" government and be on the lookout for CORRUPTION (!)
Mind you: GWB knows of which he speaks, because we have plenty of that here in the good old US of A, except we call it FREE SPEECH.
Makes us feel good.
Meanwhile, folks now united in the FORMER MEMBERS OF CONGRESS CLUB of DC (who never found their way back to their Congressional Districts) are pulling strings and directing lobbying traffic from behind the curtains on K-Street, until all restrictions are off and they freely mingle with Congressman on the floor of the House (waiting period is up).
After all, it's their job to actually write the text of the new laws (after consulting their clients on the wording), then the text is delivered to the Madam Speaker in the wee hours of the morning and slipped into the proposed law...and members are supposed to approve it (without having read it) right then and there at 10.00 AM the next morning.
Is this a great country....or what ?? Democracy in action.
Thousands of GIs have given their lives to bring it to Europe, Japan and other countries.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Not sure exactly what you mean, but I do respect your right to say it.
Olney: What makes you think Clinton has any chance to win?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: As long as she's still running, she has a chance to win. If she had no chance, she'd be out, in my view.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for chatting today. My time is up. Let's do it again in a couple weeks. Cheers!
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