K Street

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008; 1:00 PM

K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss lobbying and politics on Tuesday, July 22, at 1 p.m. ET.

Read today's column: Why BlackBerry When You Can Take the Bus?

A transcript follows.

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


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello all. Thank you for writing in. I tried this week to write about some low-tech lobbying for a change: buses. They've seemed to proliferate, despite all sort of fancier types of lobbying lately. Any opinions about that as a gimmick. I also brought up the new disclosure form. Has it been weakened or has it not been? Please weight in. What do you think? Let's get started.


Washington, D.C.: How does a bus make sense in this time of high energy prices? Isn't that the wrong message?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to the lead item in my column today, which is about the many bus tours that have been cropping up lately to aid in lobbying campaigns. I did get some complaints from readers about the amount of fuel that buses use and was asked whether that was wasteful. I really am not so sure. I bet that flying uses more fuel, at least for a big road show. What's more, at least some of the buses I referred to are very fancy buses and are more eco-friendly that the average bus. Or so I'm told. So, unless the campaigns are entirely stationery, I guess a bus is about as energy efficient as any other methods of influencing the public. Do you disagree?


Glendale, Ariz.:

I think there is a hidden message to the question of "Why use a blackberry when you can ride the bus?". The answer is: I would love to obtain a blackberry communication system to carry with me, but, the bus does have a system on board that is connected by satellite. When I ride the bus, which I do, i is possible to use the system within the bus. I do not know how many people know of this fact. The bus system in Maricopa County of Arizona has a Global System of high technology within the bus. I have recently noticed a number of investigators that are on the bus. I have seen the Homeland Security on the bus. They seem to use ear plugs and have investigated the area that I live in.

Marc Manspeaker

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Gosh. That's a lot more high tech than I imagined buses to be. I guess the last time I went on a long-range bus was during the Clinton-Gore bus trip in 1992, which I mentioned in the column. And I can assure you, there was nothing high tech about those vehicles. Especially the rest rooms, by the end of the trip. But thanks for the update. I guess. Don't much like the snooping part you suggest, though.


D.C.: So which is it: are the changes in the lobby form big changes or are they small changes. I can't tell from what you've written.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to the guidance Congress has handed out about the LD-203 disclosure form. And I can report there is a real disagreement on this issue. Lawyers like Ken Gross say the changes are very large and significant. But Fred Wertheimer, the longtime reformer, says they are not so major. Who's right? I will try to assess that in my column next week, but I would be glad to have some input from you. What do you think? Is Ken or Fred right here?


Washington, D.C.: Your reports on Payne-Scheunemann scandal appear to be very timely. Have a look at this latest report by WSJ: online.wsj.com

Any news from the Waxman inquiry? Is Congressman Waxman ready to expand the scope of his investigation?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Rep. Henry Waxman is one of Congress' most tenacious investigators. I would expect him to look into lobbying over-reaches with a great deal of vigor and this case is high among them. More later, as Waxman looks harder, is my guess.


Fairfax, Va.: I thought lobbying firms had offices all over the country. What's the big deal about opening a Seattle office?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to the item in my column today about Monument Policy Group, a lobbying firm, opening an office in Seattle. You are correct, of course, that lobbying firms have offices in cities other than D.C., but usually those outposts are for lobbying in those regions. In this case, I thought it was worth noting that the lobbyist was a federal lobbyist, not a local Washington State lobbyist. That's peculiar and maybe a sign of the times. Federal lobbyists do as much explaining to clients what's going on as trying to alter the way Washington, D.C., works, I think. That's a change. The item also gave me a chance to say I wish I had a vacation--in Italy. A little joke . . .


D.C.: Are lobbyings getting away with something with less disclosure. I'm talking about that new form.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: This is a popular topic today, clearly. The new lobbying form guidance will produce less disclosure compared to the original instructions. The question is: are those cutbacks diminishing the value of the report or are the changes merely slicing away the kind of reporting that was never really contemplated in the new law? That's where the disagreement is and I hope to get closer to the answer by next week. Unless you can help in the meantime . . .


Md.: What happened to the powerful Fannie Mac and Freddie Mac lobbying machine? I thought they could never be beaten.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, I'm not sure that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are beaten in the pending legislation. But short of that, I think that both companies have reduced the amount of lobbying they do, certainly compared to their bad old days. They both now very much want a new regulator so that they can have credibility with the world markets. Both companies, I think, overdid their lobbying and their was a backlash. Now they are taking a far more humble approach, and maybe that's working better for them.


District of Columbia: You write about this all the time, but I can never understand. What is a "special interest" anyway? Please be specific.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Special interest is a term that politicians apply to the organized interests they oppose. In my column today, Rep. Yarmuth dislikes corporate interests and, so, doesn't take campaign checks from corporate PACs. Those, to him, are special interests. But labor PACs and individuals who happen to work for corporations are not special interests because he doesn't oppose them. He can also use their money. Special interests, in other words, are very much in the eye of the office holder.


Baltimore, Md.: Why pick on Hoffman and his salary. You don't do that with others. It seems unfair to disclose his stuff and not others.

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Alan Hoffman, by all accounts, is a fine fellow. And I was not picking on him by laying out the terms of his employment with the University of California system. In fact, I was careful to speak to him on Monday to tell him (warn him really) that I was going to detail his salary etc. in my column today. Being courteous and straight with people, in this way, is a very good idea in advance of the story. It is also the gentlemanly thing to do. In any case, I put it out there because I could. It was right there in the press release that the University of California kept sending me since Hoffman's job was announced last week. That level of disclosure is unusual and of morbid fascination to the reading public, especially in Washington in cases like this one (Hoffman is a former senatorial chief of staff). Information is useful, however, so that people know what the market is out there. Do you disagree?


Philadelphia, Pa.: Has the recession (or whatever it is) taken a toll on lobbying or do they get all the business they ever wanted anyway?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: I hear that things are a little slow at the moment, but are beginning to show signs of picking up--in anticipation of a big legislative year next year. A new president will stir up lots of clients, I hear, and some of them have already been choosing their lobbyists, lawyers and PR firms. But that will show real signs of picking up after Labor Day. At least that's the fondest wish on K Street. Recessions (or economic slowdowns) hit everywhere, including the nation's capital, despite what you hear about our economy being immune to such things because of the size and persistence of government.


Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks so much for writing in. It was a fun, lively discussion. Let's do it again in a couple weeks.


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