K Street

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss lobbying and politics on Tuesday, June 24, at 1 p.m. ET.

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

A transcript follows.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. Thank you for writing in. My column today was about both lobbying and politics--as usual. I would be happy to take questions from you on either topic, or both, today. Please feel free to ask and respond. It would be great to get a real dialogue going. So, let's get started.



Do you think it would be interesting to interview someone who worked on JFK 1960 primary and general campaigns for some insight how it was, especially since so many talk heads are making comparisons to this campaign? I am not aware of any of the JFK folks saying anything other than Ted Sorenson, who actully did not work on the campaign but was the speech writer and policy guy.... I started in my home state of W. Va. which was key and then full time on the national scene.... In my days if you got your name in the press you were fired. So that may be the reason you do not hear anything from guys like me....

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I see what you mean. Yes, a lot more junion staffers are blabbing to reporters these days. I, of course, don't see much wrong with that. But from the perspective of the campaigns, it's a problem. Most campaigns try to be as disciplined as the one you're referring to, but it's not so easy during these more democratic days.


Sunrise, Fla. : How many Washington registered lobbyists are there today? Where can I find this information?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: There are roughly 30,000 lobbyists, I believe. But you can find out by going to CQMoneyLine.com or OpenSecrets.org, or by calling the disclosure room at the U.S. Senate. Please remember that those numbers are registered lobbyists. That does not count all the people who actually influence government for a living. It's a legal distinction, nothing more.


Capitol Hill: What difference does it make if Rep. Richardson didn't pay her bills? I think the whole thing is overblown.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to my column today about Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) and her foreclosure etc. As the story suggests, there may be nothing wrong at all. But it is also possible that she failed to disclose material financial facts on reports she is required to make to Congress. She also might have used personal money to win the election that she owed elsewhere, including to a local government in taxes. These might not be major legal breaches, or legal breaches at all. But they are a potential political problem. She will no doubt have to answer one way or the other. I was hoping to hear from her office when I wrote my column, but I did not get a call back.


Washington, D.C.: Does Obama also surround himself with lobbyists (like McCain)?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Not to the same extent and, to be fair, you should really be asking about FORMER lobbyists. McCain has banished from his paid staff any current lobbyists. Both candidates have lobbyists who help them as volunteers. McCain has gone so far as to require these volunteers to disclose their clients and to agree not to lobby any of McCain's offices or staff.


Washington, D.C.: Is it legit to use money from Hoyer's fundraiser to pay off Richardson's debt? Please explain.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: It's ok to use money from the fundraiser to pay off Richardson's CAMPAIGN debt, not her personal debt, as far as I know. To the extent that she loaned her campaign personal money, I guess, relieving her campaign debt helps her personally. But generally speaking, campaign and personal matters are kept separate. If anyone has a different answer, please write in.


Washington, D.C.: I was at a lunch last week with a governor seeking reelection and everyone there seemed to have business with her state. Is that legal?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: 'Fraid so. Bond traders, I think, are prohibited from donating to state officials who they do business with, but otherwise lunching and even donating money to the campaigns of office holders who hold dominion over your business interests is how the system works. It's a kind of legal bribery, as some critics have written.


Va.: So, did Sporidis get to keep his clients or not?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: He did. He left with two and both are still with him. You are referring to my column item, by the way, that said that Harry Sporidis, the lobbyist, settled a lawsuit filed by a former employer who didn't want him to take his clients with him to his new job. Well, that's the way Washington works on K Street and he was able to take them as he wanted. Other details of the settlement are less clear to me, however.


Washington, D.C.: Officially, is K Street just lobbyists or is it also lawyers?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: It's both, I think. They often do very similar things.


Arlington, Va.: Who would you say is the most powerful lobby or lobbyist?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I would say AARP is the most powerful. The senior citizens' lobby has 40 million members that no lawmaker wants to anger, for fear of losing his or her seat. AARP is also very careful to keep its members informed, and thus politically active.


Fairfax, Va.: Will lobbyists do better under Obama or under McCain as president?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think they'll do well either way. Change leads to uncertainty and uncertainty inspires hiring on K Street. So, ironically, the anti-lobbyist candidates are likely to instigate one of the biggest surges in lobbying ever--no matter which ones wins.


Detroit, Mich.: Will Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae make out easy with that housing bill, and will the housing bill even pass?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think the housing bill will pass. Yes. I think the two mortgage finance giants are a little worried that the bill could be too tough on them, particularly in allowing their new regulator to set how much capital they need to have and raise. But it may be too late for them to change the legislation much. In addition, on balance, they appear to be glad that the legislation is finally coming to a conclusion. At least they will know how they can procede in a regulatory sense--a fact that will help stabilize their position in the markets.


Washington, D.C.: All the money that Obama wants to spend is too much. It's got to stop, but is there any way to do that?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Nothing short of the very thing that Obama rejected--public financing of elections. Otherwise the spiral of more and more spending on elections, privately financed, is what we will have in our futures.


New York, N.Y.: Speculation is what makes markets work. How can Congress try to stop speculation even it does so to bring down the price of oil?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I don't think Congress wants to stop speculation. It wants to limit it. Or rather, some members want to limit it. Proposal range from imposing more disclosure about investors' positions, especially in oil futures contracts, and raising the amount of money that investors need to put up in order to trade such contracts--the so-called margin requirements. Wall Street is especially worried about higher margin requirements because that really could crimp its style--and its profits.


Hagerstown, Md.: Out here all we care about is the rotten high price of gas. What will be done about that in Washington? Can anything be done?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: That issue is the greatest debate going on now. Should there be more drilling and where? Should nuclear power be pushed, or renewable fuels, or both? Should speculators be reigned in so that energy prices can come down? These are all topic A these days. Sadly I can't say which of them, if any will prevail. Next year, however, the new president will have to deal with this topic and maybe before he does anything else. Health care was supposed to be the top priority for the new president, but I suspect energy prices and production will be.


Baltimore, Md.: Will Obama get rid of all the lobbyists when he wins (and he will, right?)?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Not really. He can't, for one thing. Lobbying is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Nor does he really want to. Without lobbyists, he won't know who to talk to and how to talk to them in deeply ingrained D.C. He will need them as allies if he hopes to get things done.


Washington, D.C.: How can the oil and gas companies get away with everything they're getting away with? Is their lobby that powerful?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: They are powerful, yes. Obviously. As for getting away with things, that's an opinion. Maybe part of the answer to high oil prices is more domestic drilling, which is what they want. Certainly a majority of Americans now agree with that solution. So part of the reason they are so powerful is that a lot of American agree with them.


N.Y.: Please tell me you're not defending lobbying in terms of free speech while criticizing Obama for spending the donations made to him?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I was trying to answer some questions, really. Lobbyists are protected under the First Amendment, but a different clause than free speech. It's the right to petition for redress of grievances. And I was not criticizing Obama for spending donations made to him. I was saying as long as he can raise more than he can get from Uncle Sam, that's what he'll do.


Oak Hill, Va.: Concern should not be about "speculation" but "manipulation."

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well said. Financial institutions argue that investors are needed to keep the markets operating smoothly. Then again, manipulation is improper now. The issue is: can regulators police manipulation. Lawmakers, at least a lot of them, think that more transparency is needed to know for sure. Watch for legislation in that arena.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for writing in. It was a good, lively session. Let's try it again in a couple weeks. Have a happy Fourth and talk at you soon.


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