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K Street

Jeffrey Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008 12:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum will be online to discuss lobbying and politics on Tuesday, June 10, at 12 p.m. ET.

Read today's column: Lobbying's Good Guys? On the Campaign Trail, They're Invisible

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

A transcript follows.

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Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. Thanks for writing in. We have a bunch of questions about my column this week (about white hat lobbyists) and last week's column (about earmark lobbying). Also other interesting topics worth discussing. If you have something to ask, please do! Let's get started.

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Washington, D.C.: Black hats? White hats? Who gets to decide? You?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Fair set of questions. In my column today I tried to quote only groups that register to lobby and are also pretty clearly pushing for broad, public interests. Those would be, in the spectrum of lobbying, "white hats" by almost anyone's estimation. I spoke to a few other groups that, upon reflection, might not fit that category. Certainly they had very serious opponents who did not consider them pure. I wanted to make a narrow point: that most people, and I suspect the candidates themselves, do not really revile all lobbyists, nor should they. I wanted to point out the flabbiness of the current debate and one of it's until-now unexpressed weaknesses. The broader question about whether lobbyists serve a good or a bad purpose, I left aside. But maybe you out there would like to engage it. Please do. Write in early and often.

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Baltimore: I wonder if Obama is saying he doesn't want money from lobbyists because he can afford not to take it from them.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Possibly. Certainly his million and a half donors, many of whom have not maxed out yet, give him the confidence he needs to think he can refuse a few million dollars here and there to make a point. And he certainly is making that point--by declining to accept federal lobbyist dollars and PAC dollars. In fairness to the Obama campaign, his spokespeople are careful to say that he really is making a symbolic gesture with his anti-lobbying efforts. He is not meaning to cut off efforts by interests from making their case. But rather, he is trying to demonstrate that he does not want narrow interests to run Washington as much as they do now. His efforts are not air tight, nor, I guess, are they really meant to be. But they are a gesture to give his sense of the political world.

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Mt. Lebanon PA: So with an Obama presidency we can all cheer on the excavators and front end loaders as they remove all traces of K Street from K Street?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Funny. No, of course not. In fact, an Obama presidency is likely to INCREASE the amount of lobbying that will go on--because he will be going after big industires with lots at stake--insurance companies, drug companies, and such like.

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Chicago, Ill.: Doesn't Obama's genuflecting to the Israeli lobby and his condemnation of Hamas and Hezbollah refute his argument about engaging with Iran. He won't meet with Hamas or Hezbollah because they are terrorists, but he will meet with the country that sponsors them. It doesn't seem coherent to me.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think Obama has been and will continue to back away from his assertion of meeting with Iranian leaders. He's gotten a lot of flak for that and he is now much more careful to say that he'd be willing to meet but that there are a lot more preconditions, and pre-meetings, that would have to go on first. His words about Hamas etc. is pretty much standard positioning vis a vis Israel and is an effort for him to win Jewish voters, I think, who went very heavily for Sen. Clinton in the primaries.

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Washington, D.C.: Who are the big players on the domestic drilling issue and what traction do you think the issue of drilling in states and ANWR will get?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: There are lots of players--from environmental groups to the oil and gas lobby. I don't see the issue working its way out of the partisan gridlock of this year. But next year is a different story. If Obama wins, look for a major increase in funding for alternative fuels and a gigantic fight over whether to increase domestic drilling. I can't guess which sides wins in the second fight.

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Old Town: Congress is doing basically nothing. How is it that lobbying grows anyway?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I am told, actually, that some lobbying firms are getting slightly less business this year because Congress, especially the Senate, is so deadlocked. But business, as I mentioned earlier, is likely to pick up next year. Change in Washington means worry and worry means lobbyists being hired by the hundreds, by the thousands. An all-Democratic power structure, if that happens, would produce the biggest bonanza, an irony given Obama's anti-lobbyist stance.

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Washington, D.C.: Excellent column today! How come the other side of lobbying (those who wear the white hats) is not written about very much?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you. Things that are out of the ordinary are what constitute news. So when people try to do things that make sense for large numbers of people, that's not considered news. It's certainly not considered a problem. And that's what most news is about, like it or not.

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Washington, D.C.: I am glad someone brought up the work of "socially responsible lobbyists." The media should cover them more often. I am curious what the ratio is between the white and black hats? And do the white hats make much less money?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't know the breakdown. In part, because the definition of white hats versus black hats is very subjective. But groups that work for broad public causes usually work for nonprofits and those people are usually lower paid than the for profit lobbyists who work for corporations and the like.

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District of Columbia: Why no mention of the most important hire of the week, the new guy in charge of the American Petroleum Institute?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to the announcement last week that Jack Gerard of the American Chemistry Council will be taking over the American Petroleum Institute, the main lobby for the oil and gas industry, when the current chief executive retires. First, I try to keep any personnel announcement in the column exclusive to the column. That one was widely announced. But don't worry. I will get back to the subject because you are correct. That is an important job at an important time.

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Boston, Mass.: I think that lobbyists should be let off the hook no matter what they lobby for. Lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, journalists, they're all hated and for no good reason.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for throwing journalists in. I have been getting e-mails from lobbyists of all varieties who agree with you. And from other folks, too. Lobbying is permitted, even encouraged by the Constitution. so what's the big deal? The problem, I think, is that the average citizen feels powerless to deal with the big problems and sees government as doing not much to help either. Only people with money get helped, or so it seems, thus the generalized anger over lobbyists, the most convenient symbol of that outrage.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hey Jeff, Per Bob Novak's reporting yesterday, in lieu of a fervent evangelical base, how will McCain generate the necessary enthusiasm for victory?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: The campaign has barely begun. The dynamics are yet to be seen. I think we will have a much better idea who has enthusiasm and who doesn't once those broad debates/townhall meetings are held. They could change all of the standard thinking.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Where in the K. Street area is the plaza that has the statue of Jack Abramoff? And are there any other famous criminals with statues in the plaza, people we've heard of, not minor money-stuffing Congressional types? Thanks.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Abamoff is not honored anywhere on K Street, nor are criminals. Lobbyists are not criminals, though I realize that's exactly what you are implying. Who knows where all of this lobbyist-bashing will end up? Maybe great reforms will be produced. Maybe nothing will get done for lack of involvement by the people who understand how the system works. The test is coming soon.

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Fairfax, Va.: You wrote last week about earmarks disappearing this year. I thought that happened before. Isn't it a trend then?

washingtonpost.com: Is There Life After Earmarks? (June 3)

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, 2006 was also a year with very few earmarks. I hesitate to call that a trend yet, however. It's possible that the earmarks put off this year could be enacted next year, which is not that much of a delay. It remains to be seen how much change is really in the offing. Both candidates for president are promising change. Who know, they may really insist on it!

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Washington, D.C.: What's going to happen to lobbying in the future. The people running for president talk against them, so will they begin to move away?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I do not expect lobbyists to move away. I do not expect fewer lobbyists. In fact, I expect more of them. The fundamental reason: interests have too much at stake in Washington to ignore the place and lobbyists are the experts in getting things done here.

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Sugarland, Tex.: Is Tommy "The Hammer" Delay's handbook still the ruling epistle there on K. Street? If not, whose has replaced it? And do all the folks there miss Tom's easy-going philosophy?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Not many people miss DeLay's hard-edged ways. At the moment, there isn't a guiding rulebook and that's a problem. A lot of legislation is now directionless and, more often than not, going nowhere.

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Westcliffe, Colorado: What occupied K. Street before all the slugs and nightcrawlers moved in? Or was it a street installed for the specific purpose of leeching off of U.S. taxpayers? And what kind of bug repellant do you wear when you venture over there? Rufus in the Sangres

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Not nice and not true. Everyone has a lobbyist whether you know it or not.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Why is it taking so long for the Pan Am families to get paid by Libya? I thought that was over with years ago.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Delay in the proceedings, I am told, has a lot to do with the problem. But it can be resolved and apparently is on the way to being so. Stay tuned.

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Washington, D.C.: What about all the people who lobby but don't register. They're as much lobbyists as the ones who submit those forms.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, you are correct, but the new lobbying law will capture some of these people. I bet more disclosures are coming down the road, given the anti-lobbyist rhetoric of the presidential candidates.

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Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thansk, everyone for writing in. We had another very lively discussion. Let's do it again in a couple week. Cheers!

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Chicago, Ill.: Hey Jeff, Why is Hillary refusing to release her delegates? Is she not, on the slim hope Obama's is damaged before the convention? Is her claim that she just wants a roll call believable? Will Hillary looming in the background restrict his ability to maneuver?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think that's mostly a technicality. But who knows what can happen. Everything has been a surprise so far this year, why not an open convention. But I have to say, I'm not betting on it. The deal is done and Obama has the nomination to do with what he wants, whatever the speculation about Clinton may be.

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