K Street

Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum will be online to discuss lobbying and politics on Tuesday, May 13, 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. My column today had lots of parts. It started with some news about how much trade associations are actually paid by corporations--a detail rarely seen. It then went on to discuss catfish (they won in Congress), alternative energy sources spending more on advertising and truckers going green. My column last week was mostly about AARP and its chief executive leaving--after extending his contract for an extra year. That's a lot to digest, and, I hope, to discuss, so please send a question or two. Let's get started.


Washington, D.C.: did you ever look into how many people contribute to political figures by employing their wives? Debbie Dingell, Antoinette Hatfield, Linda Daschle, those are all women who made it big in this town by virtue of who they married. Is it fair to hire them as opposed to contributing to their husbands? Seems scandalous to me.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hmmm. I do not know Mrs. Hatfield, but I do know Mrs. Dingell and Mrs. Daschle. I would not like to be in the same room if you asked your question in their presence. These are extremely capable people who have reached high in their chosen fields and have done so, in my view, by dint of their own efforts, not because of their husbands. Now it may well be true that other relatives of lawmakers have been employed because of their ties to the powerful congressmen. And that IS a scandal. But I do not believe your criticism applies to the women you mention.


Wilmington, Del.: How can you suggest that wind and ethanol are anything like oil and gas when it comes to lobbying and advertising? That seems like a cheap shot.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Certainly the two renewables aren't spending anywhere near as much as the oil and gas lobby, so I did not mean to make that comparison. But I thought that it was worth noting today in my column that the high price of energy has given all sorts of energy sources both the reason and the resources to advertise, as a way to improve their reputations. It's just fascinating to me that so much is being pitched to the public at this time, and in the way that it's being done. Do you disagree?


Washington, D.C.: The Congress has not been doing very much. That ought to be a problem for Democrats. Will the voters throw them out for doing nothing.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Don't think so. It looks like Democrats are poised to win additional seats in both the House and Senate. In the House, a large part of the reason is Republican retirements. The Senate is also seeing a lot of GOP seats opening up. In general, though, the public seems angry at President Bush and, by inference, his party. So much so that the Democrats, even though they control Congress, is not being blamed for much, including inaction. That could change, of course, but so far not even the low job approval rating of Congress seems like enough to stop the Democrats from remaining in charge on Capitol Hill and by larger majorities than they now have.


Alexandria, Va.: I thought the big problem with Medicare reimbursements, the issue anyway, was competitive bidding and not the actual reimbursement for oxygen and the like. Why write about oxygen as you did?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to the story I wrote last week that talked about the fight between Medicare, which says oxygen equipment is way overpriced, and oxygen providers, which say that's not so. I focused a good bit of the story on people on oxygen machines who came to Congress to lobby for the providers' position (which they say is also their own position). Using sick people is a favorite way (and a controversial way) for providers to get their points of view across. I was glad to have an example to show how that all worked. But you are also correct that I did not get into the weeds of the Medicare reimbursement fight. And there, the competitive bidding that Medicare is beginning to use across the country is a reason why oxygen reimbursements are about to go down. And yes, that is a very hot issue, maybe the hottest in Medicare. So hot, that Congress might postpone further uses of the practice, in fact. Maybe I will get to that later, but the story I did was about the incredible prices charged to Medicare for oxygen, something most people think is, well, free, and the use of patients to make the point.


Prescott, Ariz.: "Now it may well be true that other relatives of lawmakers have been employed because of their ties to the powerful congressmen. And that IS a scandal."

C'mon: Tucker Carlson. The Kagans. Bill Kristol. Jonah Goldberg.

Your world of journalism is just as nepotistic as politics is. As a result, our news quality is worse. As you say, that IS a scandal.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't think I would like to live in a place that I could not strive to succeed because my father was in the same profession.


Sun Prairie, Wisc.: Jeff, as I recall Mrs. Hatfield ran her husband's Senate office, forgoing salary as per Senate rules against putting family members on the payroll. So in a way she did owe her position to him, but he would probably say that the reverse was true as well.

How far behind do you think Sen. McCain is likely to be moneywise this fall?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you very much for the clarification.

McCain is likely to be pretty far behind. Even though he really got the ball rolling in 2000 with Internet fundraising at the presidential level, he has not excited the same kind of following that Obama has in the area this year. It's possible, in fact, that McCain will have to take public funding for the general election, and Obama will not. But I do not wish to predict.


Fairfax, Va.: Why aren't congressmen doing something about gas prices? That seems to me to be the worst thing that's going on. Is it big oil stopping them?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, in part. The oil companies have many supporters, especially in the White House, and efforts by Congress to take away their tax benefits is likely to be blocked by a veto. That said, there's not much Congress can do to reduce gasoline prices, certainly in the short run. It has been trying all sorts of things in recent years, including stimulating renewable fuels and supporting drilling with tax incentives. But so far that hasn't been nearly enough.


Washington, D.C.: I don't understand all the worry about Obama being unelectable. If the Democrats don't win the White House this year, they never will.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I see your point. In other words, it doesn't matter much at all who the Democrats put up for the presidency. That person ought to win given the economy, Iraq and all the other things that compel people to believe in huge numbers that the country is headed in the wrong direction. You may be right. Hillary Clinton may not be any better a candidate against John McCain than Barack Obama is, merely because they are both Democrats and this by all measures ought to be Democratic year. Worth thinking about. Any thoughts out there?


New York: When will Hillary drop out? Or will she?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: It's possible I guess that she will not drop out and keep running all the way through election 2012. Just kidding.


Trenton: Yes, the price of oil is high and so is gasoline. But what does it matter really. Washington can't do anything about it.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes it can, but in the long run. The government can restructure the entire energy producing mechanism for the country if it chose to, but that would take a decade or more. If the prices stay this high, something that drastic could well happen.


Washington, D.C.: What changes are already afoot from "the K street strategy" to restaffing lobbyists in a bipartisan way? Is there any chance at all that the legislative impact of lobbyists will be exposed to more sunshine?

How about energy policy group discussions a la Cheney last go-round? any chance to unlock the lists?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know about those lists, but if Congress stays in Democratic hands, as is expected, a lot more Democrats will be hired on K Street. And that will be true absent any effort by anyone to force such a trend. As for more sunshine, the law is already pushing for more of that. I bet more such disclosure will be coming soon, especially if the nominees for president are both anti-speical-interest experts McCain and Obama.


Washington: Why is the oil lobby spending so much money on advertising? I can't believe it works in turning back Congress.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Actually, it appears to be working quite well.


Old Town, Va.: You wrote about AARP president and said he was staying an extra year. What difference will that make and why is AARP so powerful?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: It has nearly 40 million members, and they tend to vote. That's more power than any other lobby by far.


D.C.: What will happen to earmarks? I keep hearing that Congress will get rid of them but they keep coming back.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: There have been efforts to reduce their number but I doubt they will ever disappear. Lawmakers come to Washington to help their districts and states and there's no more direct way to do that than to get a home state project.


Richmond: If the economy is so bad why are all the restaurants filled and why are people still traveling so much. I wonder if the worst isn't over already?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Treasury Secretary Paulson said that a short while ago (with caveats) but I do think it's too early to know. In some places the restaurants are full, but not everywhere. I think the high cost of gasoline and the falling prices of housing makes a lot of people feel poorer and that is a drag on economic activity for sure.


Washington, D.C.: What would Barack Obama do to rein in lobbyists?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: He hasn't actually said anything that I am aware of. He would make it harder for former lobbyists to work in his administration, and for anyone to lobby after working for him, but beyond that, I am not certain. Good question.


Washington, D.C.: Is increasing oil drilling in this country a viable proposition?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: It is viable, of course, but in certain places, it is widely opposed as a problem for the environment.


Prescott, Ariz.: "Why aren't congressmen doing something about gas prices?"

Don't you know that gas prices are cheap in relation to the cost of crude? The independent refiner Western Refining is down 20% today and 62% for the year because they can't make money. They are the most extreme example but the of the refining industry is in the same boat.

The only reason I can see that refiners haven't raised prices is pressure from politicians and their constituents who think they have a Constitutional right to cheap fuel.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: There's a thought. Anyone else?


Clifton, Va. :"But I do know Mrs. Dingell and Mrs. Daschle. I would not like to be in the same room if you asked your question in their presence. These are extremely capable people who have reached high in their chosen fields and have done so, in my view, by dint of their own efforts, not because of their husbands."

You're either nuts or so detached as to be lost in space. That's like saying Senator Clinton would be where she is today if she were Hillary Smith. Clearly all are capable, but where they are today solely because of their individual talents??? Uh, nope.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I stand my ground.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for writing in. Let's do this again in a couple weeks.


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